It is easier, I think, to criticize than to provide useful means of improving a given situation. It is easier to tear down than to build up, easier to find fault than to overlook minor errors. With this in mind, while my post “The Reformation of American Christianity” could be expanded into a book if I had the time and interest, I think I should present some ways American Christianity after its reformation should differ from the present version.
A friend once told me his church’s doctrines rested on a three-legged stool. One leg was Scripture, another tradition, and the last, reason. I refrained from telling him his denomination had knocked all three legs out from under the stool and in its present version rested on egos and opinions. A truly reformed (note the lower case r) American Christianity must stand on a renewed and higher view of Scripture than is presently held almost anywhere. Traditions, meaning common practices or supposedly authoritative interpretations, must be looked upon as nonessential differences. And the mind we bring to understanding Jesus Christ must contain the whole potentiality God has given us—not just reason but imagination, intuition, emotion, empathy and all the other facets of grace-fueled thinking.
It is evident that a renewed understanding of Christianity will require new theology. Theology at present is essentially philosophy. An early Christian, Lactantius (who tutored the Emperor Constantine’s children), noted that philosophers all had different opinions and spent their time arguing with each other. He thought Christians should not bother arguing with them. His advice would seem to apply to us today. Theologians of the reformed American Christianity should be mining a corrected view of Scripture to tell us ordinary Christians all that we can understand about the nature of Christ, how we can become more like him (in his human nature), and how we can come to live, think, and act in ways that glorify God.
Our reformed Christianity will have a difficult time returning to the original proclamation of Christianity “Repent of your sins and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” The most difficult part will be convincing contemporary people they have any sins of which to repent. Sins, both physical and mental, have been sanitized by the secular world, and by many Christians, through lowering standards of behavior (while being totally intolerant of those who are politically incorrect). The idea behind this attitude is that if some unfortunate attitude or behavior cannot be eliminated by prohibition then it can be legalized and thus made no longer a problem. This fits right in with the advocacy of social chaos and personal dysfunction so prominent in our culture.
The apostle Paul had to speak across a huge cultural divide such as we face when he preached to the Athenians in the Areopagus. Hughes Oliphant Old, in volume 1 of his series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, described the situation, after the sermon Paul preached in Acts 17:22–31, in these words. “Polite apologetic has been put aside here. There was nothing diplomatic about telling the Athenians, of all people, that they were ignorant. To threaten the day of judgment was to reveal oneself as being hopelessly beyond the pale of humanism, and to affirm the resurrection was to kiss enlightenment a fond farewell.”
Unless reformed American Christianity is totally convinced of the truth of the Word of God, it will not be able to change minds that are immersed in a secularized society. The goal should be to bring people who are confused by all the godless ideas of our time to the point where they will say, as George MacDonald had a woman redeemed by the Holy Spirit say in his book The Curate’s Awakening. “I would like to be loved as an immortal woman, the child of a living God, and not as a helpless—a helpless bastard of Nature!” MacDonald back in 1876 saw the issue clearly. People could be children of God or the fatherless products of nature. He had Helen Lingard make the choice we can hope more and more people make as a result of a clear proclamation that there is a choice to be made.
It would probably not be enough to make an impact on our culture if our renewed Christianity only resulted in a spiritual unity. It would probably not be enough for us. We are, at this stage of our existence, physical creatures and we receive many benefits from being together in groups of various sizes. God knew this and so provided in the Mosaic Law for three national one-week feasts each year. These gatherings are called the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Through all sorts of circumstances these feasts kept the Israelite people united in their corporate identity, even when they did not have their own nation.
We Christians do not have any instructions on how and when and where and for how long we are to be gathered. Yet we probably have a need for doing so and are actually told in the book Hebrews not to forsake doing it. Christians coming together began before the Day of Pentecost and continues to this day, not only in weekly services, but in such events as processions, retreats and on many other occasions. A renewed Christianity would find in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of the love of Christians for other Christians, ways to express their unity in events of various styles and purposes.
The message of a renewed Christianity will include the kingdom of God as a focus of loyalty. The present diverse and diffused Christianity is neither centered on Jesus or on his kingdom. Renewed churches will see their role as servants of Christians and not as their “owners.” There is enough work for renewed churches to do in proclaiming the gospel, healing damaged Christians, leading in the sharing of resources, and so forth so there will be no need for them to try to limit the unity of the Body of Christ and/or oppose allegiance to the kingdom of God.
The Protestant Reformation produced a variety of new understandings of Christianity and also continuing divisions. Nevertheless, these different ideas of what was right, working together in ways not planned by humans, lit a flame in Europe that, although it is now close to burning out, changed the lives of individuals, the shape of cultures, the destiny of nations and has now spread virtually all over the world. We can only hope that a reformed American Christianity will light in us a fire that will illuminate our darkened world.