Plato once remarked that he was ever grateful to be born a Greek and not a barbarian, a freeman and not a slave, a man and not a woman, and most of all, to have been born in the age of Socrates.Although not intending a slight against a culture or gender, it is impossible to read these words without sensing a twinge of discomfort. For within these sentiments two of humanity’s perennial struggles are encased—to find a philosophy by which to live and to correct the prejudices with which we live. One would think that the connection between the two is too obvious to miss and that the fact that one informs the other ought to stare each of us in the face. Yet, if history has taught us anything it is that we learn very little from the past, and that we do not pause either to justify what we believe or to make sure that doctrine and conduct have a life-giving connection. That which God has joined together let no person put asunder.
These thoughts have swarmed through my mind during the last few days, and I find myself unable to shake off the power of history and this colossal neglect in the best of minds. I am penning these lines hours after a walk along a beautiful path up a steep hill to an historic castle in the quaint city of Marburg, Germany. It was a gorgeous Easter Sunday afternoon as, with a colleague of mine and his wife, we made our trek up that road. Nostalgia throbbed through every vein. Oh! if only the stones could speak and resonate with the voices that held forth within those confines—what rapture that would provide! For within the rooms of that castle a memorable meeting was held in October of 1529 at which a handful of men, principally Luther and Zwingli, were present. What occasioned that auspicious gathering, and why were the emotions so intense as the moods swung from castigating outbursts to heartfelt apologies?
The question before them was one of consolidating their theological convictions and of presenting a unified platform on what they believed and why they believed it. In what can only be called incomprehensible to the thoughtneglecting modern, we read in the summation of those proceedings that of the fifteen points under debate they agreed on fourteen but with great anguish disagreed on the fifteenth. The issue that strongly divided them was the meaning of Jesus’ words “This is my body,” and the significant implications of those words upon the elements of the Lord’s Supper. To Luther it appeared to be as clear as the day—“This is my body” could only be literal. “Jesus said, ‘This is my body,’” he kept thundering forth. No, to be sure he was not arguing for transubstantiation, although Zwingli saw it as a capitulation to that. To Zwingli the words were symbolic of Christ’s spiritual presence—but not a literal body.
One has only to read the points and counterpoints made between the two and the spirit is stirred by the passion of the reformers. The contest of two different convictions, and the harshness of the words spoken in the heat of argument prompted tears and regret in each as they parted with the hope that the sharp edges of their verbal outbursts would be blunted and gentler words would prevail. Unfortunately, subsequent history unfolds a reality different to their hopes.
Today we marvel at such diatribe between people committed to Christ. Why was it not possible for calmer moods to prevail and for middle ground to be found? Marvel we may and try we must when such dissensions attend, but let us not lose sight of something far more important and so close to the eye that we may lose focus. For both Zwingli and Luther the fundamental question was unmistakable: What did Jesus mean? That was of supreme importance. To be absolutely sure of the answer to that question on the Lord’s Supper we may have to await the Real Presence when eternity is ushered in. But I strongly suspect that both Zwingli and Luther will be applauded for their unswerving commitment to determine God’s intent in His Word.
With the twists and turns of history Marburg has a more sobering warning to us than a debate in a castle by a handful of men spearheading the Reformation. The prestigious University of Marburg was founded just two years before that colloquy. In more recent times it has been the spawning ground for schools of thought that have brought havoc into theological institutions. For in this university the famed existentialist Martin Heidegger taught. His impact was also felt by the notable neoorthodox theologian Rudolf Bultmann—whose name is writ large on every liberal seminary’s hall of fame.
Bultmann’s legacy to Christianity is his selfarrogated task to “demythologize” the New Testament, that is, to strip it of what he considered its contemporaneously false assumptions and beliefs which modern learning has clearly debunked, and to find in its place that which is personally meaningful. He drew a line between the alleged acts or facts of history and history as we need to interpret and apply it. History needed to be reconstructed in order to focus on meaning and significance in our frame of reference and need. Thus, to Bultmann the resurrection was not a fact but a faith event, fused with meaning and embraced with passion despite being untrue.
This academically sophisticated but philosophically impoverished approach could not have been more ironically evidenced than on that Easter weekend which we spent in Marburg. For seventy-two hours the stores were closed and the streets were barren. Two of the most precious days to Christendom were being commemorated in a culture where the truth of those days has been lost.
Heidegger and Bultmann both died in 1976. It would have been a privilege to have been in those lecture halls at Marburg and to have listened firsthand to two of this century’s seminal thinkers. But I did not have to be present there, because I saw the visible impact they have made. My reason for being in Marburg was to speak at the fiftieth anniversary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Europe. There were two thousand, five hundred students in attendance. The day before I was to leave, after speaking and answering questions on apologetics for nearly four hours, I was asked by a young student from Austria if he could meet me alone. I had one precious hour left to myself for breakfast the next day before I was to leave for the airport, and I invited him to share that hour with me.
A confident, well educated young man from the University of Vienna, he sat across the table from me and posed the question: “I am an atheist and am only here because the girl I am interested in has become a Christian and asked me to come here with her. I am quite confused over religious matters. I am a history major. I know that facts do not speak for themselves and that in reality some things are not even facts. Why should I read the Bible any differently than reading my books in history? Why is the Bible God’s Word when we know that many things in it are not true?” I swallowed hard and knew that one hour would not eradicate decades of theological plunder. The ghost of Bultmann haunted our conversation.
In the next fifty-five minutes my task was to establish for him that the Bible is not merely a faith encounter. It does not even “contain God’s word” as Bultmannians are wont to say. It is God’s Word and it is true regardless of my embrace of it. The whole argument and its sustenance was utterly new to him. He left pleading for material that could help him to make his all-important decision on Christ and His Word.
To those of us in the evangelical camp, who believe the Scripture to be the final authority and who have a personal relationship with Christ, this kind of arrogance that reinterprets Scripture may seem like a world totally foreign to our own, and we shake our heads in disbelief. But there is a caution. As mystifying as the skeptic is to us, so are we to him. The skeptic observes how disrespectful we too may be of facts, and how fraught with danger our own sentimental version of faith may be. And I am afraid that we must heed that warning.
After twenty-five years of ministry, one of the deep concerns I have lies right here in a twin-headed dilemma—how we approach the Scriptures and how we apply them. So much of our faith today is muddied by spiritual jargon. Time and time again we hear someone saying, “God spoke to me”—a mind-boggling statement, to be sure, not only to the skeptic but to many a serious student of the Word. Could such a claim not just as equally be the spiritual clothing of ambition with the verbiage of inspiration? I have seen some of the most incredible behavior justified with the words “God spoke to me.” How does one argue with that? The only way is to turn to the Scriptures and to verify whether the truth deduced is in keeping with the truth of Scripture, not just personally wrested to advantage but also objectively revealed to all of humanity. Further, if the life and conduct of the one to whom God is “constantly speaking” belies a disjunction between practice in day-to-day living and a precept that is harnessed to justify specific behavior, that one too has amputated the organ of fact from the feeling of faith.
From the beginning of time the most difficult question confronting humanity was in the words of the tempter, “Did God really say… ?” In a tragic sort of way we have either jettisoned that revealed authority as has the skeptic or else given lip service to it, breathing our own inspiration into self-chosen paths. May I suggest the latter is more dangerous, for while the former denies the existence of God, the latter in the name of God, plays God.This may be the most important lesson to learn from the stones of Marburg. To Luther and Zwingli it was important to know what God meant when He said what He did, not what they might like it to mean. Their disagreement was based on the potence and importance of truth. For Bultmann and Heidegger their personal worlds overrode the spoken Word, denuding it from being God-breathed and rendering it effectually just another book to be literally “manhandled” at the mercy of personal inspiration. I have little doubt that to many professing Christians the choice between the two schools of thought is clear: Bultmann and Heidegger were wrong. But the terrifying reality may be that in life and conduct we may be closer to where they were.
Thankfully the broken walls of European political turmoil also told a different story in Marburg. In this gathering of twenty-five hundred students there was no exultation of the Greek over the barbarian or of male over female, and there were tears of celebration that many a slave to political demagoguery was now free. It was, in fact, fascinating to hear testimonies from Albania, Lithuania, Siberia, Romania, and other places that had once been handcuffed in history in the Cold War of atheistic ideologies. How wonderful to be alive in a day when God is opening new doors in history. When I left after a four hour session, totally weary but in my spirit soaring higher than any castle on a hill, I reveled at the thrill of a new day.
Nothing may have captured the need to reiterate these truths better than a question from the floor. A young woman from Bulgaria wanted to know why God planted a tree in Eden that He knew would be irresistible. The answer had to be protracted and cautious, to be sure the answer was right. She lingered to talk, even as dozens were standing around me still wishing the session could continue, and my colleague patiently helped her to think her question through. Sensing the right moment, Michael finally asked her if this question was truly intellectual or was there a moral struggle behind it? She broke down and cried, saying, “I am really raising it for my brother who has left his family for another woman. He keeps asking why God put this desire in his heart if it is so clearly wrong.”
That summed up her malady and indeed her brother’s, even as it does ours. To displace God’s authority by our longings, because personal meaning or ambition is more important than the discipline of will or humility of spirit, is life’s constant temptation.
But nothing so educates us as a shock and the reality is that one does not have to go to Marburg to have all this driven home. Very recently I was asked to speak at a conference on ethics at a certain university. I dared to present the bankruptcy of humanistic theories both rationally and practically and contrasted them with the biblical basis for ethics.
There was silence for a long while. Then one professor said to me, “All this theory sounds good but the real question is, how do I get my students to be ethical; to not cheat on their exams; to tell the truth, etc?” I was thrilled at the question, for, in fact, that was the point of the whole talk—hoping the questions would open ground for the gospel. But I was not prepared for what followed.
After the question and answer session ended, a student came up to me confronted with a real dilemma. “I was asked to come to your lecture today by my professor. The expectation was that I would disagree with you and so present my paper. But after listening to your talk, I found myself agreeing with you and now have a serious problem. If I write in defense of your position I will probably be given a very low grade, if not failed. On the other hand, if I disagree with you I am sure to get a top grade. My problem is the challenge to tell the truth and risk failure.”
“Did your professor come to the forum?” I asked. There was silence and then the answer. “Yes,” came the soft reply. “Who was it?” I asked. “The one who asked you the question of getting away from the theory to the bottom line of how to get students to not cheat and to tell the truth.” I was dumbfounded. Is there any doubt why many a college student has failed to link thought with life and lives as a bundle of contradictions when taught at the feet of ethicists who have severed the heart from the head, and still hope to live?
To this end Paul warned Timothy to cherish the Scripture, for it made him “wise unto salvation,” and to “guard both your doctrine and conduct.” The Scriptures are meaningful and personal because they are true, and not true just because we can wrest them to advantage or manipulate them into personal meaning. Meaning and application can be prostituted at the altar of self-gratification, but truth will stand in history when all human dissenters have said their last.
G.K. Chesterton said it well: “What we need is a religion that is not only right where we are right, but right where we are wrong.” Only the Word of God provides that corrective.That warning comes to both skeptic and believer alike. What a privilege to be carriers of timeless truths that transcend Socratic platitudes and self-centered licenses, to inform our faith and to rid us of our prejudices, keeping intact that which God has joined together.