And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:31).
Perhaps since the rise of the late-medieval mystics, who desired nothing so much as to be absorbed into the being of God—in contrast with, e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, who was more focused upon Christ and the stations of the cross. Even in his commentary on the Song of Songs, however lurid it might have been, he was less interested in ontology and more in the person of Christ—and certainly since the rise of Pietism (not to be confused with piety) and after the rise of Romanticism there has been a strong impulse among Christians to make Christianity essentially a subjective thing, to be about one’s personal experience more than a claim about something that has objectively happened in history.
The old liberals had it that Christianity is no more than a reflection of human religious experience. Friederich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) re-defined Christianity as the “feeling of divine dependence,” by which he meant to say, Christianity is the quest for the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Schleiermacher was, of course, the child of Pietists. They loved the Lord and his Word but they defined Christianity not first as a claim about history and truth, doctrines taught by our Lord and his apostles, but principally an unmediated (literally, without means) experience of the risen Christ. For the Pietists, doctrine and history were secondary. The early Pietists tended to be personally orthodox but as in the case of Schleiermacher, when confronted with Modernity, the later Pietists collapsed and retreated into personal experience. When he got to university and encountered Enlightenment rationalism, his Pietism left him entirely unequipped to defend his faith. He became a “Modern” Pietist. He gave up historic Christianity, the history of redemption, the doctrines of the Scripture and the church, and re-made Christianity into an explanation of our personal experience. Even Karl Barth (1886–1968), who hated Schleiermacher’s theology, was really only just another Modernist and subjectivist. Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) was right. Barth was never actually “neo-orthodox.” He was always just a “neo-Modernist.” See Van Til’s The New Modernism (1947). At bottom, the “existential encounter with the Word” (through Scripture) was nothing but another form of subjectivism.
This should sound quite familiar to American evangelicals since Schleiermacher’s biography is the history of “evangelicalism” (if there really is such a thing—see D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism). In a remarkably short span of time American evangelicalism morphed from The Fundamentals (1910–15), chief among which were the substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ, the “emergent” and “emerging” movements, quite at home with the radical subjectivism of late modernity. It was never a long walk from “I know he lives, he lives within my heart” to “my truth.”
Luke’s quick brush strokes in Acts 4 present a starkly different picture of what Christianity was in the apostolic period. The great power with which the Apostles were giving testimony to Christ’s resurrection was not a matter of the subjective experience of the audience. Everyone watching and listening could see that the Holy Spirit was performing wonders before their eyes. Just as God the Son, by the Holy Spirit, had performed “signs and wonders” through Moses (Ex 7:3), so too now, after the incarnation, by the Spirit, the ascended and glorified Son was performing signs and wonders through the Apostles to validate their ministry and message (Acts 4:30–31; 5:12–14; 14:4; 15:12). These signs and wonders were objective. Whether those who saw believed, the signs and wonders happened just the same. Those who received them and those through whom the Spirit performed them were subjectively recipients and participants but the acts were objectively real. They were not “my signs and wonders” but “signs and wonders.”
So it was with the message of the apostles. They were not announcing “my resurrection” or the rising of Jesus in their hearts or another other principally subjective experience. They were not calling others to join them in their subjective experience or their renewed appreciation of what Jesus had been saying. They were not announcing a metaphor. They were announcing an objective historical fact that had been empirically verified. The tomb was objectively empty. It was not merely “empty in their hearts” but actually, empirically empty. The women, who arrived first at the tomb, saw that it was empty (Matt 28:1–10). They disciples, who arrives shortly thereafter also saw that it was empty (John 20:1–10).
The tomb was not merely empty but Jesus was alive. The disciples themselves saw Jesus. They spent time with him (Luke 24; John 20:19–21:25). Five hundred people saw the risen Christ and by “saw” I mean that they had an ordinary sense experience of Jesus who had been dead and buried but was now raised from the dead. “Saw” is not a metaphor for a subjective awakening to a deep spiritual truth (though that certainly accompanied and followed their sense experience) but a sense experience of the risen Christ. It was not mass hysteria nor was it some mass psychosis.
Luke summarizes the message of the apostles as the announcement of a fact that had been empirically verified. The apostles were making factual, historical claims about things that really happened outside of our personal, religious experience. The Christian faith begins with objective history and doctrines. It has the greatest importance for our subjective experience but that subjective experience does not create nor does it define objective reality. Whatever our personal, subjective state, however elusive reality may be at times, the objective, historical fact remains: Christ was dead. He was buried. People saw him. They handled his body. When they went to check on the tomb they found it empty and the later saw him alive. They touch his resurrected body. They saw him ascend (Acts 1).
Please do not think that I am attacking piety, i.e., how we relate personally to God, devotion, godliness. I am criticizing Pietism, the attempt to marginalize the objective truths of the faith in favor of the unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. Rather, I am advocating a return to the biblical theology, piety, and practice that we confess in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which piety is built around the divinely ordained means of grace. The Lord used the preaching of the Apostles to bring his elect to new life and true faith and through faith to union with the risen Christ and to a life of communion with him and with his people. One great difference between Reformed piety and Pietism is the Reformed emphasis on the divinely appointed means (media) that the Spirit uses to bring us to new life and to produce in us conformity to Christ. That life of communion leads to a rich personal and corporate piety and devotion but it begins with the objective truths of the faith, which Luke summarized by pointing to the bodily resurrection of Christ. Of course the apostles did more than preach the resurrection. We know that Luke’s own summaries in Acts and the from the New Testament epistles (e.g., Hebrews, which was likely a sermon).
For more on the distinction between piety and Pietism, see the relevant chapters in Recovering the Reformed Confession.