R.C. Sproul wrote concerning the modern evangelical penchant to build bridges with defective theologies that, “The mythical element is the naïve assumption that one can build bridges that move in one direction only.”1 Meaning, that such bridges will bring the error closer to truth but not the truth closer to error. But it is the nature of compromise to move from what is right to what is wrong. In the Christian context, that would be from what is biblical to what is not biblical. Sproul continued, “In an effort to win people to Christ and be ‘winsome,’ we may easily slip into the trap of emptying the gospel of its content, accommodating our hearers, and removing the offense inherent in the gospel.”2
The compromise, of course, is subtle. If unvarnished truth were set directly beside blatant error, the difference would be so obvious that no conscientious person would want or be fooled by the error. It was because of Paul’s absence that he wrote to the Corinthians, But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him (2 Cor 11:3-4).
Sometimes the buffer that enables compromise between truth and error may be sufficient time, or increased distance, or growing dissatisfaction—anything that allows the truth to be forgotten for the moment. No Christian commits sin with the holiness or the judgment of God fresh on his mind. We sin when we become temporary atheists and seem, at least briefly, to forget that God is immanent. Whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him (1 John 3:6).
Some men, both ancient and modern, believe this gradual compromise is a good and necessary thing. One prominent proponent was the German rationalist G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who is famous for his “dialectic” approach to truth (see Fig. 1). As one editor describes it, “In his effort to reveal the implications of reality and reason, he employs the method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, with analysis as the starting point, the examination of contradictions as the second step, and finally the arrival at unity by means of reason in a summation of ultimate truths.”3 Hegel thus believed that history moves in this dialectic pattern from generation to generation, always settling on a compromise view between two extremes. Truth as historical fact is always “incomplete” until it becomes the “unifying” synthesis.
My reason for using Hegel is the same as Paul used Aratus in Acts 17:28. Not that his opinion is the way God intends it to be, but his opinion is the way man prefers it and the way it often is in a fallen world. (Because Paul quoted Aratus, as well as Menander in 1 Cor 15:33 and Epimenides in Tit 1:12, does not mean he agreed or approved of everything they wrote; nor that Paul was placing the same approval on them as He would on one of his pastors.)
For Hegel, the Thesis was the traditional approach, what society has accepted as fact. He called it the Idea, the Warp or the Design of the house (see Fig. 2). But every generation challenges the Idea with its opposite, or Anti-thesis. This he also called Passion, the Woof or the Material to build the house. But no society is ready for such radicalism right away, so a Syn-thesis naturally develops between the Idea and the Passion, which he calls Liberty (or Freedom), the Hue or the House in which we finally live. Interestingly, Hegel sees this as the necessary evolution of society in that the Synthesis then becomes the Thesis for the next epoch. In this way, he observed, Truth is constantly being brought up to date and changed for each new age.
In our society, this process happens much more quickly than in Hegel’s day (see Fig 3). A process that took centuries may now take decades or even less. Easily within a life-time, we can see the whole process take place. We have seen the values of the Great Generation challenged by the Radicals of the Sixties and Seventies, that have now become the mediating values of young “Millennials.” In a matter of three generations, what was once the Antithesis is now the Thesis. The very thing the grandparents once warned of has become a reality in their own grandchildren! We often hear, “The seeds of our own destruction are already sown within us.” This may be more apt today than at any other time. The expanding of communication and the shrinking of the world accelerates this process ten-fold. The process of this gradual compromise can be stopped by any generation rediscovering the Scriptures and returning to its fundamental thesis of godliness and separation from the world. Until then, each generation will continue to slip further and further away from the faith of their fathers.
Thesis: The Traditional Church
When a generation of believers begins to love God enough to stop loving the world, they will return to the simple and historic Christianity of their fathers. They will find their message and method plainly taught in the Scripture. Hegel even said of this step, “To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn, presents a rational aspect.”4 Faith is no longer a matter of pragmatism nor traditionalism, but of simple obedience. Separation becomes a principle that pleases God, not a detriment to reaching the world. J.N. Darby said, “Separation from evil is the necessary first principle of communion with Him. Separation from evil is His principle of unity.”5 Even John MacArthur has written, “There’s nothing sacred about human tradition. I’m not in favor of staid formalism or hackneyed custom. I agree with those who warn that stagnation can be fatal to the church. I just don’t believe the church needs to abandon the centrality of the Word of God, the primacy of preaching, and the fundamentals of biblical truth in order to be fresh and creative.”6
Antithesis: The Contemporary Church
This church loves the world more than it loves God. It believes that the church exists primarily as a confirmation of men’s passions and only secondarily for repentance. Hegel characterized this position as having “the convenient license of wandering as far as we list, in the direction of our own fancies.”7 This is why he often calls it Passion from which such people “respect none of the limitations which justice and morality would impose on them.”8
This is not unlike the contemporary churches today who set the Word of God aside because they have decided they need to believe and practice something else. Consider Peter Wagner’s statement: “I [used to] focus mostly on Bible study . . . . Now I know more about worship, reverence, and praise . . . . I am beginning to distinguish the voice of God from my own thoughts and to allow him to speak to me directly. I still study my Bible, of course, but I find this other dimension of personal intimacy equally important.”9 Or consider John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard churches: “But there are problems related to the grammatical-historical method [of interpretation] . . . . The student easily falls into reliance on study rather than reliance on the Holy Spirit.”10
The so-called Evangelical churches that deny the supremacy of Scripture, that deny the literalness of hell, that deny the catastrophe of creation, et al., have catapulted the church into the world and have made it what the world wants it to be—non-threatening! Or, as Hegel would have observed, “as far as they list, in the direction of their own fancies.”
Synthesis: The Blended Church
The “necessary” synthesis is arrived at when “at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust . . . . Into the more agreeable environment of our individual life—the Present, formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore.”11 This “synthetic” compromise wants to have its Christian cake and eat its worldly cake too! The old thesis of separation from error has become distasteful, and yet the contemporary antithesis is obviously too far afield. Alas! There is safer ground.
Some decry the thesis outright: “Should we become separatists? No, the answer to the challenge of entertainment is not to become secluded in ‘holy huddles’ of legalism and cultural isolation.”12 Others simply admit, “We began ‘Saturday Night’ to reach unchurched people without identifying a biblical basis for our methods.”13
But as Os Guinness recounts, “A well-known proponent states, ‘I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist’—as if his theology were thereby guaranteed to remain critical and his methodology neutral.”14 Or as Tozer wrote, “We of the evangelical faith are in the rather awkward position of criticizing Roman Catholicism for its weight of unscriptural impedimenta and at the same time tolerating in our own churches a world of religious fribble as bad as holy water or the elevated host. Heresy of method may be as deadly as heresy of message.”15 And all this because of the “necessary synthesis.”
It is the nature of a synthetic position to become expert at pragmatic methodology. As long as we can “build” a church, attract a crowd, gain notoriety among our peers, we think we are the same as our forefathers. As Vance Havner put it, “We say that we depend on the Spirit, but actually we are so wired with our own devices that if the fire does not fall from heaven, we can turn on a switch and produce fire of our own; and if there is no sound of a mighty rushing wind, the furnace is set to blow hot air instead. God save us from a synthetic Pentecost!”16
Notes: 1. R.C. Sproul, Willing To Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) 19. 2. Ibid. 3. G.W.F. Hegel, “Philosophical History,” The World’s Great Thinkers, Man and the State: The Political Philosophers, Commins & Linscott, eds. (New York: Random House, 1947) 404. 4. Hegel, 408. 5. Quoted by Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg: RBP, 1979) 116. 6. John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993) 188. 7. Hegel, 411. 8. Ibid. 9. C. Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit (Ann Arbor: Vine Books, 1988) 129. 10. John Wimber & Kevin Springer, Power Evangelism (San Francisco: Harper, 1992) 191. 11. Hegel, 419. 12. Jerry Solomon, Arts, Entertainment & Christian Values (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000) 141. 13. Ed Dobson, Starting A Seeker Sensitive Service (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993) 54. 14. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1993) 26. 15. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill: Christian Publishers, 1997) 185. 16. Vance Havner, Why Not Just Be Christians? (Westwood, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1964) 15.