In the 19th century Karl Marx (1818–83) diagnosed our most basic problem in material terms. He prescribed a future (eschatological) solution that was entirely material. He himself said that he had turned G. W. F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) spiritual view of history and the future “upside down” by materializing it. He replaced Hegel’s “spiritual” dialectic (P vs. Q = R; rinse and repeat) with a class struggle. Marx was part of a broader movement that closed the world around us. The Enlightenment rationalists said that what the human intellect cannot understand comprehensively cannot be true. Note that word cannot. The Enlightenment empiricists said that what we cannot experience with our senses cannot be true. These a priori claims about what can or cannot be known were nothing but faith commitments, religious convictions. Indeed, many of the leading Enlightenment figures were Deists and Unitarians. For them, as one of my university professors said, God had “gone to the corner for a beer and he never returned.” From this we see right away that the Enlightenment was not, as has frequently been said, the “triumph of reason over religion” (as the Enlightenment marketed itself) but the substitution of one set of religious convictions for another. In the Enlightenment human autonomy replaced God’s sovereignty. Human reason and human sense experience replaced divine authority revealed in nature, Scripture, and mediated through the visible, institutional church. The Enlightenment was a religious revolution.
As a consequence of the Enlightenment or Modernity we began to think of the world and our existence in closed categories. Of course, the Enlightenment produced a mystical reaction (Hegel was not entirely wrong) in Romanticism, the quest for a certain quality of religious and emotional experience. In their heads they were rationalists but in their hearts they were mystics. This Romanticism was influential among 19th and 20th century evangelicals, more than a few of whom are Pietists and mystics in their affections but rationalists in their intellects. The old closed Modernism has also given rise to Late or Liquid Modernity (Zygmunt Bauman), which manifests itself in radical subjectivism. People speak as if there is no objective reality. This is the root of the notion of self-identity that contradicts nature. A caucasian woman identifies as African-American and then represents herself as such. Humans who are biologically male present themselves to the world as if they were female, as if their pretend identity is real when, of course, as we all know the transsexual emperor has, as it were, no clothes. Nature is. It can only be defied so long. A fellow can tell himself that, in his reality, there is no gravity but he will be hard pressed to convince gravity that it does not exist and he will do well not to transgress the laws of gravity. For all their supposed reaction to Modernity, like the Romantics before them, the Late Moderns are still Moderns. When push comes to shove, underneath the ostensible postmodern garb beats the heart of a Kantian who lives in a closed world. Reality is what she experiences it to be, what she says it to be but she knows that Jesus could not have been raised from the tomb.
Christians have been more influenced by modernity than we realize. As a practical matter we tend to live as if God did not exist. The Remonstrant philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583–45) wrote that one of his theories would be true “etsi Deus non daretur” (even if God did not exist). He was attempting to establish a truth that transcended even God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) made this expression famous in his Letters From Prison. He wrote of living as if God does not exist. In the Modern age we are constantly tempted to suppose that the closed world is really true or to react by turning to a superstitious, Manichaean (dualist), hyper-spiritual view of the world in which providence is replaced by demons.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask:
127. What is the sixth petition?
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” that is: Since we are so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment, and besides, our deadly enemies, the devil, the world and our own flesh, assail us without ceasing, be pleased to preserve and strengthen us by the power of your Holy Spirit, that we may make firm stand against them and not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, until finally complete victory is ours.
We really do have spiritual enemies. The Apostle Paul referred to them as “powers and principalities” (Rom 8:38; Col 3:10, 6:12; Col 1:16, 2:12). He says:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Col 6:12).
The Apostle Peter was not engaging in hyperbole when he wrote:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8).
Further, in Adam we are dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1–4; Romans 1–3). We are “dust” ( Ps 103:14–16). The traditional Augustinian and Reformed view of Romans 7 says that Paul was speaking as a Christian when he wrote:
but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:23–24)
There is a war within us. We are weak. We do sin. We are often wretched. God the Spirit is working within us but the results of that work are not always quickly and easily perceptible. The Scripture does not teach and thus we do not confess a “theology of glory” (Luther) that looks for perfection in this life. We battle ourselves (the flesh, i.e. our sinful nature). “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). Paul says, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17; ESV). We struggle against “the world,” i.e., all those spiritual forces arrayed against Christ and his spiritual kingdom (Gal 6:14; Col 2:20).
We are on guard against the Evil One but we are not paranoid. We are not afraid. As powerful as the Evil One may be he is not as powerful as he would like us to think he is. He is not omnipresent and further he is, as Luther taught us, defeated by “one little word:” Jesus. We should say to him as our Lord said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” He has no authority over us. We have been bought with the most precious blood of Christ. We have been declared righteous. We have been saved. We are being saved and we shall be saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Grace defeats Satan. It is only when we (were it possible) put ourselves back under the covenant of works that we have anything to fear because then, in that instance, he has a case against us. Now, however, that we are righteous in Christ, he and his servants have nothing on us.
The antidote is a living, Holy Spirit-wrought connection to the True vine (John 15:5) by grace alone, through faith alone. We need to put on the “whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11, 13). That armor is God’s Word, his holy gospel, the instrument of faith, truth, and prayer:
having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Eph 6:14–18; ESV)
Christ’s righteousness is our by imputation. As a consequence, he is also making us righteous by the work of his Holy Spirit. By faith we trust Christ and his Word to be true even though the world, the flesh, and the Devil ask, “has God said” or assert “God has not said.” We know his lies when we read and hear them. In other words, we start with the objective realities: justification, salvation, truth and we appropriate them through faith alone, by grace alone. We pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (or the Evil One) in the Spirit, in the truth as it is in Christ.
The victory has been accomplished and its realization in us has been inaugurated. We are not yet glorified and we wait expectantly for Christ to return and to make all things (us included) what they shall be. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we shall be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). So we pray this petition in confidence knowing that the very same Savior who obeyed in our place, who was crucified in our place, who sanctified the grave for us and then left it empty, shall preserve us from all the fiery darts and lies about us.
Enlightenment was a lie. We do not live in closed world. Our greatest threats and needs are not material. They are spiritual and for them the rationalists and empiricists have no answer.