Why Catechism: Theological Laziness

It seems that there are few other pursuits that require such a little working knowledge than that of Christianity.

– Paul Watson –

Introduction

I have quoted my friend Paul Watson before, but I believe that the accuracy of his statement is poignant and worth repeating until it awakens the senses that the church has a real problem on its hands. Perhaps this quote was further engrained into my memory a couple of Sundays ago as I was commissioned to preach and teach at a church in south-eastern Kansas. As I concluded the sermon, on the Superiority of the Priesthood of Christ, the reaction of the audience was everything but enthusiastic and thankfulness to God. The congregation seemed completely disengaged and unaffected by the joy and blessing of having our salvation secured in the eternal priesthood of Christ as preached in Hebrews 5-10. Unfortunately the attitude did not stop at the end of the service. As I began the college sunday school class, we started with the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism which asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” As I started to work through the answer, evaluating each line and asking why each phrase was a comfort in life and death, I was met with an obstinate attitude and the question, “Why are you making us think?” Surprisingly this is not the only time I have encountered this question in the church or even in a college setting where thinking is your occupation for 2-4 years.

What follows in this post in strictly an evaluation of the current problem. In order to learn my proposed solution to this problem, you will have to wait for the following 3 posts. For, in order to understand the significance of a change in tactic, we must understand the position in which we currently stand. Please understand, the position in which we currently sit is by no means a pleasant one to deal with, but believe me when I say that there is hope and that it is completely within the means of the church.

Theological Laziness

It is evident that the level of biblical knowledge or theological clarity in the church is poor at best. However, it is not absent, which is a silver line in this otherwise gloomy cloud. But what is meant by theological laziness? By the use of this term I wish to communicate that the lack of biblical literacy in regard to the individual is not due to a lack of resources, for certainly we have an abundance of biblical/theological resources available to us in America. However, there is a growing trend of aliterate congregants in the church. That is to say, they have the tools and resources available to them to learn and grow, yet they willingly choose to not use them.

For an illustration of this point it is beneficial to pull from the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he attended Union Theological Seminary in 1930. It is telling that the experience had by him there is not all that different from our current position in the church. Upon observing the students there, he once wrote to a friend:

There is no theology here…they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 101)

This is the first aspect to the term “Theological Laziness”. The second aspect is what some have coined as ‘Parroting’. This is stated to denote those individuals who only quote and repeat books, systematic theologies, or the ‘right’ preacher and theologians. Rather than being fluent in the Scriptures, developing theological convictions from that, and using Scripture as the basis for checking theological systems, they rely on what certain individuals have said. While this may mean that they have a large understanding of theology, they are not much better off than those who choose not to learn because they fail to base their theological convictions on Scripture. (This is not to deny the value of Theologies and books however.) Further, the person has not spent time wrestling with Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit to illuminate their understanding of Scripture. Again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words are beneficial in this regard as well.

Not only quietness is lacking, but also the characteristic impulse towards the development of individual thought which is brought about in German universities by the more secluded life of the individuals. Thus there is little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition. This gives work in seminar lecture or discussion a very innocuous character. It is more a friendly exchange of opinion that a study in comprehension. (Ibid., 104)

In case the individual plight is not sorrowful enough, the situation in the church is not much better. Preaching in the church tends to be shallow, application driven speeches rather than preaching Christ and Him crucified every Sunday. Further, hearing deep theology from the pulpit is a rarity these days. In the 1920’s and 30’s the church was hit with a wave of ethics and sociological centered preaching where the sermon was replaced with a message responding to the news paper and the ‘fundamentalists’. (Thank you Harry Emerson Fosdick). Further, due to the liberal emphasis in the church that arose, the Bible was subject to malicious attacks under ‘higher criticism’ that sought to discredit much of what Scripture tought on life and salvation. With this assault from the pulpit, many congregants forgot catechism or theological instruction and the emphasis on applicatory sermons was driven to such a degree that J. Gresham Machen stated there was no Christianity left to apply. Since that time, true Gospel preaching, preaching Christ and Him crucified has become rare or absent. Again Dietrich Bonhoeffer encountered this.

Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in generally I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity….There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se? The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. The fundamentalist sermon that occupies such a prominent place in the southern states has only one prominent Baptist representative in New York, one who preaches the resurrection of the flesh and the virgin birth before believers and the curious alike. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. (Ibid., 106)

This situation has resulted in two pitfalls for the church. First, the church has become infested with false teaching and errant theology. Men have arisen in the spotlight preaching a false gospel that tickles the ears and have gone virtually unchallenged as they feed the self indulgent tendencies of mankind. Second, the congregants of the church have eroded their defense against false teaching by failing to be well versed in the truth. These two pitfalls have been the reef that many a ship of faith has wrecked upon. Pastors unconcerned with the diet of their sheep have produced sheep who care nothing of their diet. The watchmen of God’s flock have failed to keep watch and have allowed the wolves of false teaching into their pasture with the result of their anemic, defenseless sheep being devoured.

Born Out of Sunday School?

What is the root problem of the current situation? For years the church has implemented the Sunday School technique as a way to curb theological laziness and illiteracy but have the actual results matched the desired impact of the program?

Ken Ham in his book Already Gone explored this very question and found this: “Sunday School is actually more likely to be detrimental to the Spiritual and moral health of our children.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Sunday School has not aimed to be as theologically accurate as it has aimed to provide an age appropriate story time. This is how Ken Ham described Sunday School.

In the hallways, the kids will split up by age and be welcomed into classrooms full of laughter and life and hope. Teachers will embrace these kids as if they are their own for about 45 minutes. They will pour their hearts and souls into the children and teens with the help of videos, various curricula resources, Bible stories, crayons, crackers, CD music, computer graphics, flannel graphs, white boards, cookies, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, prayers, and pipe cleaners…It all looks so safe and healthy – an inseparable part of the fabric of spiritual life in the western world. (Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone, 37)

However, his findings completely demolished previously conceived ideas about the Sunday School program. According to his study, students who regularly attended Sunday School were more likely to: not believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate, doubt the Bible because it was written by men, doubt the Bible because it was not translated correctly, defend that abortion should continue to be legal, defend premarital sex, accept that gay marriage and abortion should be legal, believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another, view the church as hypocritical and believe that good people don’t need to go to church just to name a few. (Ibid., 39)

Conclusion

It would appear that the church’s effort to build the faith through Sunday School has not produced the desired result. In reflection upon my own experience with Sunday School, the accounts of Scripture were notoriously portrayed in a ‘fairy-tale’ manner rather than a Historical, Redemption fashion. As a result, when trials came later in life, the ‘fairy-tale’ approach left me with little to no foundation to fall upon and almost resulted in the shipwreck of faith. Indeed for some this lack of a proper foundation has resulted in just that.

Obviously, the Sunday School method is not the sole culprit to this condition. To look at this method alone and place the whole blame upon it is naive. It is a combination of factors that has led to this current situation, which will be addressed in later posts. Further, it is unwise to criticize a particular method without a plan to carry out in its place. Accordingly, in the following post (next Monday) we will cover the importance of theological knowledge and how methods certainly play a role in the success or failure thereof.

For now let it be said that I do believe that the Sunday School system needs an overhaul and in the coming weeks I will lay out an exact plan as to how this current mess we find ourselves in can be remedied. Perhaps it is time for the church to return to a historically proven method “forged through a kind of wisdom and life experience gained during an era in which Christians were less apt to simply react to the secular agenda and uncritically imitate its glitz, glamour and noise.” (Kim Riddlebarger, The Need to Recover the Practice of Catechism)

To read the Introduction to the Catechism series Click Here.

“There is no theology here…”

I have been reading a new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which has been a delightful read, but I was particularly interested in several of Dietrich’s comments regarding American Seminaries during 1930-31. Bonhoeffer’s time in America greatly shaped the rest of his ministry upon his return to Germany. In America, he acquired four friends that influenced and challenged him, but it was also the place where he first encountered the racism he would later see in Germany. I would like to at this time quote several things that he said in regards to American Seminaries. NOTE: ALL quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer below are from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2010).

There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. (pg 101)

This is characteristics of all American thought, particularly as I have observed it in theology and the church; they do not see the radical claim of truth on the sharpening of their lives. Community is therefore founded less on truth than on the spirit of “fairness.” (pg 104)

The lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising….Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology – for example, whether one should really preach of Christ. In the end, with some idealism and a bit of cunning, we will be finished even with this – that is their sort of mood. The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America. Its criticism is directed essentially against the fundamentalists and to a certain extent also against the radical humanists in Chicago; it is healthy and necessary. But there is no sound basis on which one can rebuild after demolition. It is carried away with the general collapse. A seminary in which it can come about that a large number of students laugh out loud in a public lecture at the quoting of a passage from Luther’s De sevo arbitrio on sin and forgiveness because it seems to them to be comic has evidently completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for. (pg 105)

I am particularly struck by Bonhoeffer’s comments because I don’t think much has changed since then. Most of our ‘Christian’ Universities are more of a vocation school rather than seminaries. The vast majority of Christians are more concerned with figuring out a way to make a living for themselves, than learning and studying the faith they adhere to in order that the truth of the Gospel can correctly impact their lives and in addition, assist them in detecting false teaching. Scholarship has greatly decreased among Christians and as a result, we cannot adequately articulate or defend what we believe, nor can we spot the false teaching that is running rampant throughout the church today.

Sadly though, Christians have greatly departed from the path of critical thinking. An example of this comes yet again from the biography. I have learned that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while being educated in Germany, attended the classes of professors that he did not agree with, yet it did not change his thinking. Going into the course, he knew what he believed and was able to respectfully stand against any errors that came his way. This is an exercise that Christians on whole are lacking incredibly.

How long must the Church lie in ignorance? Ignorance is killing us because we don’t know what we believe, why we believe it, and the result therefore is that we cannot properly live it out. Essentially, the truth we claim to hold to has had no effect on our lives because we do no even know what the truth is!

It is important to realize though that you do not have to be an academic professor or have a PhD. in order to be able to becoming literate in your faith. All you really need to do is apply yourself to studying the Scriptures and find some great resources in order to aid and teach you. (Hence I have a recommended reading page and a ‘Trustworthy Resources’ tab of links) So quit sitting on the sideline and begin by knowing what you believe, why you believe it, be able to defend it, and apply it to your life.

The Challenge of Pluralism

“The challenge of pluralism in our country is so prevailing. What pluralism says is that all of these views are equally valid, because everybody is really on about the same thing. But when they are honest about Jesus, they know that Jesus is not like Buddha, and he isn’t like Krishna, and he isn’t like the religious leaders that have walked across the stage of time. He is radically different. So in order to maintain the perspective of philosophical pluralism, the pluralist must then devalue Jesus. That is why in Time, Newsweek, and all these magazines, there is a constant onslaught on the Deity of Christ, on the significance of the Death of Christ, and of the notion of the return of Christ. Why? Because these things stick out like a sore thumb. His very claims are so unbelievable, and the dramatic transformation in these disciples is undeniable, and the existence of an ever expanding church is inescapable! So if they are going to convince us that we are all the same, then they will either have to bring the other characters up to the level of Jesus, or do what they do, and that is seek to bring Jesus down to the level of the other characters.”

– Alistair Begg

My Frustration with False Teaching

2 Timothy 3:5 “holding to the form of religion but denying its power. Avoid these people!”

One of my biggest frustrations with the 21st Century American church is the sheer amount of false teaching within it. The problem lies not only in those spreading a false gospel, but also in those people who follow them. They are just as Scripture says: “For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

We are living in an age when apostasy is rising and false teaching abounds. In our day and age, the gospel is stripped of its power and it is being supplemented with some of the most erroneous teachings I have ever heard.

For example, this evening I heard a pastor state to his congregation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ stands in opposition to other ‘truths’ and that everyone needs some level of spirituality to get through life. He went on to state the Paul gave Christ as 1 answer to all of life’s problems!

DID I MISS SOMETHING!? Where is this in Scripture?

If this is what he really believes, and his confession of postmodern thought suggests that he is, than he is wasting his time. If Christianity is nothing more than a mere crutch to get someone through life, what is the point!? He has turned the gospel into a mere fairy tale or antidote in which the purpose is nothing more than to make people feel better about their fallen nature! I submit to you that this man, who claims to be a pastor, is ashamed of the very gospel that saved him (if indeed he is saved).

I am with Paul when I say that I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it is God’s Power for salvation to everyone who believes!

Has the church fallen so far off the straight and narrow that we only seek that which helps us to feel better about ourselves? What has happened to us that we allow this straight out heresy day in and day and say nothing!? Is the Gospel of Christ nothing more than something to smile at and take so lightly that distortion of it means nothing?

Brothers and Sisters, the time has come for us to eradicate this out of the church and to start being that Light in the Darkness that shows people the way and that Salt of the Earth that makes people thirsty for God!

In the coming months, I will challenge you to stand with me and begin removing the veils of deception that are blinding the church. No longer can we sit in silence as the church dies of cancer.

Begin Praying for a Revival

Jacob