The dean of evangelical theologians during the post-war period, Carl F. H. Henry wrote his magnum opus, God, Revelation and Authority, between 1976 and 1983. The six-volume master-work was a compelling defence of authority: the authority of God and the authority of God’s revealed Word.
The very first line of that magisterial work is this: “No fact of contemporary Western life is more evident than its growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word.” He traces this malady back to its roots: no, not just back to the French Revolution or the Enlightenment, but back to the garden:
“Why is it that the magnificent civilizations fashioned by human endeavor throughout history have tumbled and collapsed one after another with apocalyptic suddenness? Is it not because, ever since man’s original fall and onward to the present, sin has plummeted human existence into unbroken crisis of word and truth? A cosmic struggle between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, shadows the whole history of mankind. The Bible depicts it as a conflict between the authority of God and the claims of the Evil One. Measured by the yardstick of God’s holy purposes, all that man proudly designates as human culture is little but idolatry. God’s Word proffers no compliments whatever to man’s so-called historical progress; rather, it indicts man’s pseudoparadises as veritable towers of Babel that obscure and falsify God’s truth and Word.”
Henry is right on target in focusing on the core issue: the rebellion against authority. And that rebellion has especially targeted the revelation of God, the truth of God, and the idea that there is a “sure word”. And there are consequences to such rebellion:
“More is sacrificed by defecting from the truth of revelation than simply the truth about God and man and the world; loss of the truth and Word of God plunges into darkness the very truth of truth, the meaning of meaning, and even the significance of language. . . . It is man who dies, not God, when the truth of truth and the meaning of meaning evaporate.”
The examples of cultural madness and moral suicide that I chronicle here on a regular basis all flow from this war against authority. One of the more recent phases of this war, the 60s counterculture, was essentially all about the rejection of authority. Whether it was the police, parents, or priests, all forms of authority were targeted. I know – I was part of that rebellious culture.
The sad news is, those rebels who were on the fringes of society during the 60s are now part of the mainstream. They have captured the institutions of power and influence, in true Gramscian fashion. Those who still hold to truth and authority have been pushed to the margins. We are in fact the new counterculture.
But what is so tragic in all this is that this flight from God and this revolt from reason did not just stay in the secular realm. It also influenced the churches big time. Indeed, that was partly what Henry was reacting to 25 years ago. He knew that the churches were caving in fast, and only a return to biblical absolutes and Scriptural authority could save the day.
But unfortunately his words mostly went unheeded. Thus we have the need for things like the Jerusalem Declaration, to get us back on track. We need to reproclaim the very basics of the Christian faith, as so many contemporary believers seem to have such a weak and slippery grasp of the basics of what they believe and why.
Indeed, observant readers will note that increasingly my articles on this site are doing just that: getting back to some biblical basics. That was what people like Henry were trying to do just a few short decades ago. Of course Henry was not the only voice crying out in the wilderness back then. There were others, most notably, Francis Schaeffer.
I can only plead with contemporary Christians to get hold of any of his important works. And grab Henry’s works as well. Both authors had so much to offer. Indeed, their works serve as a stark contrast to so much of what passes as Christian thinking and writing today.
And I can nicely illustrate this with a story. Two days ago I bought eight books. For those of you who know me, there is nothing unusual in that. It is a regular – and expensive – practice of mine, much to my wife’s chagrin. Seven of the books were brand new, and one was a second hand volume. I must say, the used book is the best of the eight. It is a superb volume which I have long been meaning to pick up.
I refer to the 1969 volume by another important Christian thinker and prophet of last century, Harold O. J. Brown. This particular volume, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, was an incisive critique of where modern theology had been heading, fuelled by the spirit of the age. Nearly forty years ago Brown was warning the church to get back on track with truth, with sound theology, and with the authority of God’s word. The entire book is full of sober warnings and wise counsel. Let me just offer a titbit:
“Unfortunately, as Western culture has moved farther and farther from its Christian base, all too many Christians have swallowed the persuasive suggestion that biblical authority is somehow oppressive and a constraint on human freedom. Objectively speaking, such a suggestion is false. To accept it is to abandon the whole biblical message, which is convinced that it is precisely the authority of God and of his Word which makes human freedom possible.”
And he pinpointed the crisis of a church without truth: “The church may conceivably exist without this or that doctrine, but it cannot exist without truth. That is to say, it cannot exist as a Christian church. What we are facing today is an attempt to ensure the survival of the church as an institution even at the cost of the principles it is supposed to embody. Some theologians, prelates, and church officials are completely sincere in their attempt to preserve ‘the church’ in this limited and un-Christian sense; having lost the sense of what truth is and means, they are trying to save the structure which seems to have so many secondary values and cherished associations.”
Hmmm, one can think of a few very good modern examples of this very thing. Brown, like Henry and Schaeffer, was deeply concerned about truth and authority, and could see how both were under severe attack. All three men sounded warnings, like good watchmen on the wall, but for the most part were ignored or went unnoticed. But the message they proclaimed needs to be heard loud and clear today more than ever.
We as a culture have rejected God, rejected truth, and rejected authority, and are now paying a terrible price for it. But regrettably, the churches have in many ways followed suit, heading down this destructive path as well. That is why things are in such bad shape today.
Now the remedies are various: repentance, prayer, worship, revival, and so on. But part of the remedy is surely to regain this lost prophetic word. So I challenge my readers: if you still have copies of Henry, Schaeffer or Brown, dig those volumes out, blow off the dust, and read again their timely words. Otherwise, head to the second-hand bookstores, or amazon.com!
But the message that these men presented decades ago needs to be shouted from the rooftops. I have offered a taste of their wisdom and insight here. I hope the reader will go on for the whole feast. The church badly needs to change course, and these authors offer part of the way in which this can take place.