Changing Christian Consciousness
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) was a German liberal theologian whose most influential book ‘The Christian Faith’ was published in two volumes in 1820-21. It expressed a mystical kind of understanding, largely undefined, undogmatic, non doctrinal and universalist. He wrote about ‘the feeling of absolute dependence...the consciousness of being in relation to God’. Schleiermacher sought to reconcile his inherited Christianity with Enlightenment thinking. (He also wrote a pamphlet in 1798 called ‘Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies’ which may seem patronising to us but was proto-feminist at the time).
In his earlier work ‘Addresses on Religion’ (1799), he wrote: ‘Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self’.
This language is not as catchy as that of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’.
Academic theology is presumptuous. It over rides what is already given; it piggybacks faith, tradition and history; it speaks to itself; it ignores the ordinary person. Even so, it filters down given time and affects Christian ministries and thence worshippers in churches. Many of these might describe their own faith in terms similar to the language of Schleiermacher. This, in spite of Scotland’s intellectual Calvinistic inheritance.
A contemporary example of this style of communication is Rev Dr Scott McKenna of St Columba Church Ayr. In his sermon ‘What is water’ delivered on 27th September 2020, Scott McKenna deals with the story of Moses striking the rock at Horeb, bringing forth much needed water to save the lives of the Israelites (Exodus 17 : 1 - 7). He begins with the words ‘My purpose in preaching always is to lead us into a deeper appreciation of the divine’. He offers a rationalist explanation for the miracle and it is not the central aspect of the sermon. He concludes ‘For me, the story of the gushing with water is not an event of 2500 years ago; it is now in the soul, yours and mine. Let God be the deep well inside you’.
Half way between Schleiermacher’s mysticism and historic Calvinism is John McLeod Campbell (1800 - 1872). He was a Church of Scotland minister deposed from his ministry at Rhu in 1825 for preaching what was regarded as the heresy of universal atonement. Thereafter he was supported by a small independent congregation in Glasgow. He maintained personal devotion to ‘the Father of souls’ as he described God. He wrote, ‘But where so many threads of this mystic life are interwoven it were wrong to fix the eye of faith and its interest just on the thread which is one’s individual self. While the words ‘Thou art the Saviour’s darling; seek no more’ may be rightly heard, and healthfully self applied, in which each is alone with God, still we have not fellowship with the Head if we lose the sense of membership or forget that Christ’s eye is on the web and pattern of being woven, and with an interest in which to share is an important and blessed element in our participation in the mind of Christ’ (Memorials of John McLeod Campbell, Volume II, p 296).
About his post Church of Scotland ministry Campbell wrote ‘I am persuaded, although there is no great burst of feeling, nor any general awakening of men’s minds produced by my preaching here and in neighbouring towns, that there is a deep and gradually widening attention awakened’ (Memorials of John McLeod Campbell, Vol I, p 107). That may be what many ministers have felt when their faith, hope and optimism collided with the uncomprehending and unawakened consciousness of congregations in parishes throughout the land.
McLeod Campbell’s style is prolix but his Christian universalism can be discerned. Evangelical Christianity has always emphasised individual salvation. Schleiermacher’s thought is theistic and collective. McLeod Campbell’s thinking was Christological but allied to pietism rather than to the Westminster Confession of Faith. For him personal Christian living was more important than adherence to doctrine. Perhaps many members of the Church of Scotland could be described in this way and this could be behind the advocacy of ‘mission’ in the form of community involvement rather than confessional Jesus Christ centred evangelism.
What we have seen so far is insufficient definition. However well intentioned, there is much that begins from a different starting point than that in the New Testament. And it is to Paul that we turn for compass and perspective. Believing in something, accepting a mystical apprehension of the divine, and being absorbed in Christ centred universalism were not the engines of the formation of Christianity. They represent journeys alongside Christianity, being derived from Christianity, valid is so far as they go, but lacking the clarity, immediacy and power that accompanied the introduction of Christianity to the world.
In Romans 12 : 2 Paul writes ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will’. Paul is the classic case of before and after. He already knew the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or thought he did. When he encountered the risen Jesus this brought about a mind transformation not just a mind apprehension. He was given a new consciousness, a Jesus Christ centred consciousness. All of his letters in the New Testament reflect this new state of mind. This was definite, immediate, historical and it became effective in mission evangelism. Paul became the brains and inspiration behind the emerging Christian Church which was distinct from all and everything around it.
Paul’s mysticism was Jesus Christ focussed. In 2 Corinthians 12 we learn of his ecstatic experiences tempered by a physical condition which kept his feet on the ground. ‘I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell….Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”.... For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (verses 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 10b). The suffering aspect is important. Jesus suffered. Many Christians have suffered for their faith, for Jesus Christ. This is something church people do not talk about. Christian conversion means accepting the Calvary experience as well as the resurrection experience. It means personal surrender to Jesus Christ. Paul understood this and it was the basis of his missionary life. There is no such thing as Christian mission without Calvary. Change in Christian consciousness has to take place.
In Ephesians 1 : 3 – 10 Paul expresses his understanding of the full meaning of Jesus Christ. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’.
This language is very different from that of Friedrich Schleiermacher or John McLeod Campbell. It is personal, intense, definitive, full of content. Did Paul understand more of Jesus Christ than 19th century theologians? Did he have a proportionately effective ministry founding Christian congregations in Asia and Europe? If Jesus Christ is unchanging do we need to seek Him with Paul as our guide? Is this where our change of Christian consciousness might occur?
For Paul, God is the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself knew God as his Father. It is a relationship of intimacy. It is not a relationship with ‘the infinite’ or ‘the deep well’. However ‘our participation in the mind of Christ’ is an approximate description. Paul says God has ‘blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’. He is not a wandering spiritual seeker; he has clarity, he has certainty. Paul abstracts his experience into a coherent theology of understanding. ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’. He moves from actuality to reflection, to theory. This language in time would fossilise into hard doctrine and unfortunately become the cause of difficulty and offence throughout Christian history and indeed for some in Scotland where ‘predestination’ moved from the periphery to the centre of Christian thinking. Paul journeys from the existential election of the Jews to the cosmic perspective of God’s choice and grace ‘which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us’. Paul’s thought is severally grounded in the facts of Jesus’ life. He did not make this stuff up. He is the communicator of things larger than himself and his own mind.
Contemporary liberal thinkers begin with themselves and their own ideas and they do not progress beyond them. John Shelby Spong the apostate former Episcopal Bishop of Newark in America is such an example. His ‘Twelve Points for Reform’ are :
1 Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2 Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3 The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4 The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5 The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6 The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7 Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8 The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9 There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.
10 Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11 The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behaviour control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behaviour.
12 All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
This is outside of Christianity thinking. It bears no connection whatsoever to the Bible or to Christian tradition. However John Shelby Spong was invited to speak to Cairns Church of Scotland Milngavie on 2nd June 2011. There are other extreme liberal congregations within the Church of Scotland who sit lightly to the basic foundations of Christianity. Cumnock Trinity Church is one of them. St Columba Church Ayr is another. Yet members of these churches are proud of their free thinking and have an air of superiority about them especially in relation to evangelically minded people and congregations. Spong raises issues that have been debated for centuries. He is not saying anything new. Paul dealt with intellectual snobbery in Athens. Spong is the most recent of Anglican false prophet bishops. What have his views to do with the suffering of the world? What do they have to do with the continuing expansion of world Christianity in spite of persecution?
Why are people happy to accept recent and contemporary theological ideas but not accept those of Paul? Is it because his thinking is within The Bible that this excludes him from serious consideration? Yet no-one in Christian history has presented such a credible case for Christianity. No-one has articulated the meaning of Jesus Christ so acutely. No-one has lived it like Paul. Paul’s experience and understanding have been transferable throughout generations and ages. Martin Luther was an inheritor. Today there are Christian scientific thinkers like Alister McGrath, John Lennox and Guy Consolmagno who answer objections to Christian Faith such as those of Spong. There are Christian influencers like Karen Lafferty, Graham Kendrick and Stuart Townend who give musical voice to the living personal Christian Faith of global millions. The 20th and 21st century Popes have been men of great intellect and sophistication.
Christianity in Scotland is atrophying. The Church of Scotland is dying out. Yet within Christianity there is the power of renewal and revival. Christianity in society has always had a roller coaster ride. It ebbs and flows. Dies and is reborn. It is the story of Jesus Himself. The means of changing our Christian consciousness are available to us.