History Repeats Itself
History demonstrates that a mainly subjective faith is a largely anemic faith, which increasingly becomes insular and irrelevant.
In the 19th century, an overly subjective focus within the Christian community in the West produced an existential form of pietism, which said that everything about anything came down to one thing: a personal relationship with Jesus.
In the 20th century, this came to a more extreme fruition in the existential theology of Karl Barth. Barth concluded that the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather only leads us to the person of Jesus. Furthermore, our subjective experience of Jesus is the only valid authoritative revelation of God’s word. As such, Barth rejected the plenary authority of Scripture as the written Word of God, and it’s role in providing external standards for judging the authenticity of our experience of Jesus.
For the 21st century Barthian’s among us, any external Biblical standards that are outside their experience of Jesus are a “distraction” – including solid doctrine, the Great Commission, discipleship, objective moral standards, cultural engagement, etc.
Elements of Barth’s theology are now being touted under new enticing banners like “Christ is All”, “Beyond Evangelical” and “Emergent”. In fact, if you read the blogs and writings of Barth’s epigones, like Frank Viola and others, you will find frequent references to Barth as one of the greatest influences on their beliefs and practices – although they often pull back from being as explicit as Barth in his misguided attempt to elevate Christ by diminishing all that Christ provides as part of His self-revelation, like His authoritative Scripture, commands and moral precepts.
But it all comes down to the same doctrine, same isolationism and same introverted focus on “me and Jesus” or, in its more collectivist form, “us and Jesus” – usually fed by a strong reaction to very real wrongs within the institutional church.
Fundamentally, however, they believe that a personal relationship with Jesus solves all problems – whether individual, in the church or in society.
Existential Pietism’s Half “Truth”
But what existential pietism – in all its forms – fails to see is that if Jesus is real enough in me, then I will come to know not only the subjective, relational side of Jesus, but also the propositional side of Jesus. And that propositional side of Jesus has something objectively to say about all aspects of His creation.
Jesus is not just personal, but cultural.
He is not just relational, but bends history to His will.
And He is not just subjective, but establishes objective truth regarding all reality!
A truly authentic Jesus in me, and together in us, will be expressed through us to all aspects of life, culture, and history – both relationally and propositionally. And sometimes, what Jesus has to propositionally say to society may offend, even though we may not be acting offensively.
Ignore this, and history will repeat itself as existential pietism once again produces the same fruit it always produces: A gutted gospel which – because it has jettisoned the plenary authority of Scripture and any concept of the propositional truths it contains – becomes irrelevant to the issues and challenges of a watching culture. Instead, it naively wraps itself in the sensibilities of its age. As such, existential pietism always fails to speak prophetically to the culture because it becomes little more than an expression of that culture.
Although we may live in a post-modern world, that doesn’t mean we should become of a post-modern world!
At a Crossroad
The fact that propositional truth is sometimes used abusively does not negate the essential reality that Jesus is both subjective in calling us into relationship with Him, and propositional in calling us into obedience to His written word of scripture.
We are now at a crossroad: We can either react to how propositional truth is sometimes misused by becoming increasingly subjective and isolated – thus remaining captives of this age.
Or we can learn to build bridges within the Body of Christ – thus advancing the Kingdom of God as we let the life of Jesus in us become ever more expressed through us in all its vibrantly different ways.
But building bridges is what increasingly post-modern Christian existentialists like Frank Viola seem to miss: Jesus brings us Himself, but part of Himself includes objective truth of universal relevance through the plenary authority of His written word. Jesus is not simply subjective. He is so much more, and very multifaceted and multi-dimensional!
As such, some of us will exhibit the more subjective side of Jesus, while others will exhibit the more propositional side of Jesus, and that’s OK! Jesus in each of us, and expressed through each of us, is not some either/or dichotomy.
I like Frank Viola and those bloggers and authors who are part of his circle of influence. I have learned much from them about Jesus’ legitimately subjective nature.
But they now seem bent on ignoring what other segments of the Body of Christ can teach them about the propositional nature of Jesus. How? By creating new distinctions and divisions within Body of Christ as they re-assert Biblically discredited existentialism, touting existential theologians like Karl Barth, and espouse hollow pietistic creeds under the new banner “Beyond Evangelical”.
A New Religious Clique?
I am not defending evangelicalism or any other movement – all movements have their strengths and weaknesses. But I have the humility to embrace and thus learn from those who went before me (even existential pietists!), and from those who love Jesus but express Jesus differently – whether they be “evangelical”, “fundamentalist”, “neo-reformed”, or even what Frank keeps derogatorily calling the “religious right”.
At its root, his problem with all these “others” seems to be that they affirm a Jesus who is not simply subjective and relational, but also objective and propositional. I have learned much from Frank Viola in other contexts, but I am alarmed at how intent he now seems in promoting his concept of “Beyond Evangelical” by openly discounting and dismissively labeling these other brothers and sisters who have different giftings, callings and aptitudes.
Perhaps most telling, in response to a comment on his blog, he acknowledged that those who he now relates to under the banner “Beyond Evangelical” tend to share common personality characteristics.
Thus, “Beyond Evangelical” seems to be little more than a new religious clique, comprised of people who have banded together to affirm their similarities and their shared post-modern sensibilities, while isolating themselves from others who legitimately reflect Jesus differently.
I like some of Frank’s writings on “organic” church and I am actively involved in a network of fellowships which are participatory, embrace a flattened leadership model, and that understand what it means to minister one to another as we express the life of Jesus in us, among us and through us. I thank Frank for his past writings, which helped us to some extent in that journey.
But to the extent the organic, the missional, the neo-evangelical or any other segment of the Body of Christ embraces warmed over existentialism or pietism and fails to transcend the post-modern sensibilities of this age, it increasingly will become a self-focused, introspective and isolated Christian ghetto that clings to a solely subjective Jesus.
Like the existential pietists of the past, they will eventually die out – but only after creating more walls and more divisions as they refuse to learn from or embrace others and after discovering that a personal relationship with Jesus will not, as they naively think, solve all problems.
In fact, this is not just a theoretical fear. Data show that my concerns are well founded as the “organic” community in the West becomes more and more insular, isolated and subjective. (See A Report on Simple/Organic/House/Missional Church.)
I serve a subjectively relational Jesus who lives in me, and I serve a propositional Jesus who has lots of objectively true things to say to a world in crisis. To my “Beyond Evangelical” brothers and sisters, I urge you to acknowledge – if not embrace – Jesus in all His grandeur and learn to walk with those who seek to do the same!
See Part 3 of Beyond Evangelical?