Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Between Scylla and Charybdis (Part 1)

In Homer's The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is forced to choose between two monsters poised on opposite sides of the narrow Strait of Messina. Scylla dwelt on a rock. She had six heads and would gobble up any sailors within range. The sea monster Charybdis had a single gaping mouth that sucked in huge quantities of water and belched them out, creating deadly whirlpools. Odysseus had a terrible choice to make. To avoid Charybdis he would have to confront Scylla, knowing that some of his crew would certainly be eaten alive. But to avoid Scylla would mean sailing too close to Charybdis's swirling whirlpool and possibly lose his entire ship. He opted for the lesser of two evils, faced Scylla and only lost a few men. So the saying "Between Scylla and Charybdis" means to face two extreme dangers. Here are some extreme dangers in theology. Unlike Odysseus, we don't have to choose between them, as God has provided a safe passage for us in his Word.
1. Legalism and antinomianism. Strong legalism teaches that salvation is by works or that works make a contribution to our salvation in some way. A weaker form of legalism tends to see the Christian life in terms of keeping a set of rules that are not necessarily biblical. Antinomianism holds that as we are saved by grace, God's commands are irrelevant to Christian believers. Antinominanism is therefore detrimental to the life of holiness. We are saved by grace alone apart from the works of the law. But Jesus says, "If you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15).
2. Intellectualism and emotionalism. Intellectualism stresses that faith is mainly assent to biblical propositions. But this can lead to a cold, unfeeling approach to the Christian life. "True religion is more than a notion, something must be known and felt." True faith is exercised when the whole person; mind, heart and will trusts in God. Emotionalism virtually disregards biblical truth for the sake of exciting experiences. This can leave the believer at the mercy of fleeting moods and feelings. Christian emotions should arise in response to the truth of God applied to our lives by the Spirit. We must rejoice in the Lord rather than rejoice in the feeling of joy as an end in itself.
3. Pseudo-scholarship and anti-intellectualism. By pseudo-scholarship I mean scholarship that is not subject to the authority of Scripture. The task of Christian scholarship is to engage in serious biblical and theological study. The aim must be to help the church confess the biblical gospel more clearly, not to undermine the teaching of the Bible. Men who claim to acknowledge the authority of Scripture also become pseudo-scholars when their work ceases to be of any real use to the people of God. Anti-intellectualism has little time for biblical scholarship and theological study. But the Bible demands in-depth study if we are to understand and apply its message properly. The work of theologians and biblical scholars is to be treasured by the Church. God uses people with great intellectual ability like the apostle Paul, Augustine and Calvin for the building up of the body of Christ. The hand that works must not despise the eye that sees.
4. Ecumenism and isolationism. The aim of the ecumenical movement is to create one worldwide institutional church. In practice this means that the Protestant and Orthodox Churches would have to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church under the authority of the pope. Ecumenism minimises doctrinal differences for the sake of institutional unity. But the historic disagreements between Evangelical Protestants and the Roman Catholic church concern matters that are essential to the gospel such as justification by faith alone and that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and men, not to mention the supreme authority of Scripture. In the ecumenical movement, serious theological differences are often relativised and regarded as mere matters of emphasis. Consistent Evangelicals cannot allow the biblical gospel to be treated as an "insight" that is no more or less valid than Liberalism or Roman Catholicism. The integrity of the gospel demands that Evangelicals separate themselves from the Ecumenical Movement. But some Evangelicals have gone to the opposite extreme. They become isolationists, moving in ever decreasing circles. Secondary issues like Bible versions or premillenial eschatology are made the basis for fellowship between churches. But the basis for fellowship is the gospel and it is scismatic to separate from other believers over secondary matters. Isolationists show scant regard for the true unity of the visible church for which Christ prayed, John 17:20 & 21.
5. Traditionalism and trendiness. Traditionalists tend to elevate their traditions to the level of Scripture. This is certainly the case with the Roman Catholic Church, but Protestants too can become traditionalists. Some churches demand that preachers pray to God in "Thees and Thous". But such a requirement cannot be justified from Scripture, where human beings and the devil as well as God are addressed (at least in the AV) as "thee" or "thou". Traditionalists almost invariably think that old is better than new. But Scripture, not time is test of truth. A tradition may simply be an old error, while new insights into the meaning of the Bible may be perfectly valid. Traditionalists risk consigning themselves to a cultural black hole by failing to relate the everlasting gospel to the contemporary world. On the other hand, trendies don't have a lot of time for tradition. They appreciate what is new and fresh. But Christians are part of the historic Church and we should value what the Spirit has taught believers in the past. We are not the first generation of Christians to interpret Scripture. The ancient creeds and confessions help us to read the Bible faithfully, avoiding blind alleys. Familiarity with church history helps us to identify when a "new insight" is really no more than a recycled heresy. Trendies can be so obsessed with "relevance" that they may be tempted to downplay aspects of the gospel that are especially problematic in the postmodern world. The exclusive claims of Christ do not seem too appealing to easy going relativists, so we had better not mention John 14:6 or Acts 4:12. The Emerging Church is an example of the triumph of trendiness over faithfulness. Christians are called to be faithful to the historic gospel and meaningfully engaged in the contemporary world.
More extreme dangers coming soon...


Anonymous said...

Not sure how the analogy works - are you saying that the dualisms which you highlight are mutually exclusive in which case we adopt a pseudo-utilitarian 'lesser of two evils'? In which case, which of each pair do you think should be prioritised?

Exiled Preacher said...

Fair cop guv. The analogy isn't perfect. I acknowlage as much in the intro,

"So the saying 'Between Scylla and Charybdis' means to face two extreme dangers. Here are some extreme dangers in theology. Unlike Odysseus, we don't have to choose between them, as God has provided a safe passage for us in his Word."