CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Time To Put Jesus on the Couch

Mar 28, 2011

The more nonsense I see emanating from so-called evangelical Christians, the more I despair. On a daily basis we see the faith once delivered by the saints being ripped to pieces by trendy upstarts. And so much of this is being done by those who claim to be Bible-based believers.

As the latest example of this, it now seems that we must have a psychological assessment of why believers believe what they do. Those who are bold in proclaiming truth need a bit of psychological counselling to help them deal with their issues.

Those who champion truth and do so with some certainty are now being asked to be assessed for their psychological condition. Forget the fact that there might actually be truth which exists and which is important for us to adhere to. Forget the fact that truth is mentioned hundreds of times in Scripture.

Forget the fact that certainty is something Jesus and the disciples everywhere affirmed. Forget the fact that the insistence on right doctrine over against false doctrine is championed repeatedly in Scripture. Forget the fact that throughout church history people have risked life and limb to defend biblical truth.

Now it seems all this fuss about theology, doctrine and creeds is all just a matter of psychological shortcomings. An evangelical psychologist has just recently weighed into the current controversy about Rob Bell’s new book and his push for universalism. Instead of dealing with biblical and theological concerns, she wants us to see it all from the vantage point of secular psychology.

The piece is on a site called ‘Recovering Evangelical’. That should send the warning lights flashing. Usually whenever such a term like this is thrown around, it means some guy who used to be a bible-believing evangelical has decided to ditch his faith – or good hunks of it – for the latest trendy nonsense that is making the rounds.

They tend to be bitter and angry, and like to lash out at the old evangelical convictions and verities. So this just seems to be more of the same: another ‘up yours’ to an evangelical past which is being rejected for the latest bowl of theological porridge.

In a new article, “evangelical social psychologist” Dr. Christena Cleveland says those who are getting a bit worried about where Bell and the emergents are going are just getting worked up about nothing, and their desire for theological certainty can all be explained away with humanistic psychology.

We are informed that those wanting to affirm truth and certainty suffer this disease: the need for cognitive closure. She says this: “More recently, social psychologists have studied a phenomenon called need for cognitive closure which is defined as an individual’s ‘need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity’.”

There you go: the reason why some Christians are sticklers for doctrine is because they are insecure and have this deep need to be right. Never mind the hundreds of times we are commanded in Scripture to seek the truth, affirm the truth, defend the truth, and preach the truth.

Never mind all the times Jesus and the disciples challenged those who had faulty understandings about God and his mission. Never mind how often in Scripture we are told about how we can have certainty in what we believe. Never mind the strong conviction about truth which all the OT prophets, Jesus and the NT disciples had.

She concludes her short piece this way: “In theory, our common group membership as Christians should supersede theological distinctions, thus overriding these nasty group processes. However, anyone who spends any time on Twitter knows that this is not yet the case.”

There you go again. We need to transcend mere “theological distinctions” if we are to be real Christians. So Bell is pushing the heresy of universalism? Just get over it – it’s no big deal. And if another emergent church leader comes along with another best-selling book, this time telling us that Jesus is not in fact God, well, hey, don’t get too shook up about it.

After all Christian unity is all that matters. Doctrines divide, but love unites, so let’s just chuck all those divisive doctrines out. There are far too many of them anyway: the reliability of Scripture, the Trinity, the uniqueness of Christ and his work; salvation by grace through faith, the second coming of Christ, and so on. Let’s just abandon all these troublesome doctrines and let’s abandon the search for theological certainty as well.

As the emergents keep telling us, let’s just rejoice in ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty. That is so much of a safer and kinder place to be in than actually claiming that certain doctrines are true and certain doctrines are false. Gee, we could have used this kind of pop psychology centuries ago.

It would have helped to straighten out Jesus, or Paul, or Augustine, or Luther, or Wilberforce. They were all so dogmatic and intolerant and insistent on knowing and proclaiming truth. If the shrinks could just have got Jesus to lie on the couch for a while, he would have realised that all his insistence on truth was just an attempt to get some cognitive closure.

Paul was also a very needy candidate for this psychological assessment. His run-ins with Peter, the Galatians, and others, and his insistence on certain true beliefs and behaviours obviously flowed from some deep insecurities in his psyche.

While we are at it, let’s get on the couch Al Mohler and John Piper and J.I. Packer and Mark Driscoll and D.A. Carson and Chuck Colson and all those other rather bigoted folks who claim to know truth and who seek to defend it. They obviously have some big issues to deal with.

A couple of months on the couch and we will straighten out these fightin’ fundies. And we can also do so much more for the good of the church. Why don’t we get the Psychologist Study Bible out there, where we can do psychological assessments of all those black and white passages in Scripture?

In no time we can get the whole Bible to be nothing more than a book of 99 shades of grey. Just think, we could have prevented so many Christian martyrs going to an early grave. These countless martyrs who died for the strength of their Christian convictions did so in vain. If we could only have gotten them on the couch and taught them to cope with their inner insecurities and foolish need for cognitive closure.

Let me conclude with a different tone. I have written plenty of times elsewhere that there is a place for mystery and wonder, and there is a very big need to stay on our knees in humility before God as we seek to understand and convey the truths of God. But with that humility must come some assurance, conviction and boldness in proclaiming the biblical truths as found in God’s word.

Have some believers been too cocksure, arrogant and pig-headed in their use of truth? Sure. But many believers today are now rushing in the opposite direction, which is just as dangerous, if not more so. The answer to arrogance and inflexible truth is not to go into the error of relativism, scepticism and non-stop doubt.

Truth and love must always go together, and we all know of some folks who clobber us over the head with truth. But the answer to this is not to renounce the truth altogether, and seek to psychoanalyse anyone who speaks with the courage of his convictions.

Jesus, Paul and millions of others spoke fearlessly and boldly about the truth of God. Yet they also walked in love, humility and with respect toward others. That is what we are called to do as well. Avoiding one extreme by going to the other extreme is never the right answer.

I will continue to proclaim truth in the public arena, while continuing to stay on my knees, asking God to always keep me on the straight and narrow. If a shrink wants to analyse me for doing this, so be it. But with Paul I have to say, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” – and with conviction, boldness and certainty.

recoveringevangelical.com/2011/03/why-love-rarely-wins/

[1380 words]

21 Responses to Time To Put Jesus on the Couch

  • I always want to be right and where I’m not, may God show me.

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • Bill.

    She’s 99% wrong, but she’s 1% right.

    One of the reasons I am a little hesitant about the label “evangelical” sometimes is that we don’t do mystery well.

    We actually do prefer tight, sometimes trite answers to very big questions, when in truth we don’t have much in Scripture to go on, and God has us on a need-to-know-basis and we don’t know.

    I am in no way siding with Bell, who I think is likely to have lost the plot, but I don’t think it does us any good when the John Pipers of this world berate him without having read the book. Numerous gallant defenders of truth have done this with Bell, and it’s not to their credit.

    Bell has been deliberately obfuscative and obtuse in his video appearances and interviews… perhaps in order to sell more books and milk the air of mystery… but I think we need to be careful here.

    My point is that in the best evangelical tradition, we believe in a God of propositional truth… that he has revealed himself to us. That we could not have know him outside of that revelation, in the various form in which it has come to us. But he has not been exhaustive!

    I don’t think I am being particularly controversial to say that in our efforts to be systematic and comprehensive, we have often been exceedingly bland.

    It doesn’t hurt sometimes to say we don’t know stuff!

    This is equally a failing of the pentecostals, some of whom would rather God say anything at all than have him stay obstinately silent, which is often his prerogative.

    Anyone who encounters God, and is left standing speechless in awe of his majesty, should grasp something of what I’m trying to say.

    So I give that lady 1%!! But no more 🙂

    Alister Cameron, Melbourne

  • Thanks Alister

    Yes quite so. And I have said as much – often. For example in my review of one of Bell’s earlier books I said this:

    Again, no one has all the truth, and all of us need each other as we seek truth. But the overemphasis on our inability to fully understand God’s word, to fully comprehend truth, is simply unbalanced. We acknowledge our need to be humble, to be constantly on our knees, to recognise our limits, yes. But we also have a God who is true, and who seeks to convey truth to us.

    Bell also speaks of the need to be content with wonder, with mystery, with uncertainty. Again, in one sense this is quite correct. None of us have God all figured out. None of us have a corner on the truth, and too often we try to rationalise and intellectualise our faith. There is a place for mystery and even mysticism. And whole chunks of the church have long embraced this, such as our Eastern Orthodox brethren.

    But this must not be allowed to get out of balance. God has revealed true truth to us, and it is often propositional in format. There is a place for doctrine, for theology, for the use of the mind. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water here, but find the biblical balance.

    But the emergent church is going way too far in one direction, leaving us with little more than doubt, uncertainty, sceptism and despair of ever knowing any final truth.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Alister, you said:

    I am in no way siding with Bell, who I think is likely to have lost the plot, but I don’t think it does us any good when the John Pipers of this world berate him without having read the book. Numerous gallant defenders of truth have done this with Bell, and it’s not to their credit.

    But we also need to keep in mind that there is a heresy that goes by the aphorism “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!”

    Sometimes, a person’s stance and even the title of a book scream out to me “reading this would be a total waste of time”. And I would not hesitate in so advising others.

    Grain of salt time, methinks 🙂

    John Angelico

  • For someone to admit that they may not know the truth with absolute certainty can be an act of humility, but to claim that there is no need to seek or to know the truth is godless stupidity.
    Jereth Kok

  • Does any particular doctrinal flavor provide a bible based believer with ‘biblical balance’?
    Jamie Bowman

  • Thanks Jamie

    Of course most groups happen to think that their particular theology offers the full biblical balance! But none will do so perfectly, because we are all fallen and finite and fallible. But some may be closer to the biblical data than others. But every theological system will have its shortcomings and biases. Thus I don’t claim to be fully part of or committed to any one theological tradition, although I am happy to admit my preferences (biases?). I tend to be more happy with the classical orthodox teachings, and lean to the Reformed side of things in most cases.

    As I keep saying, while we can learn from and draw upon various theological traditions, we need to keep coming back to the Word itself, and keep humble, keep in prayer, and keep seeking God’s help as we strive to represent him properly in our theology and doctrine (not to mention our life and behaviour).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Sounds as though Dr. Cleveland has her own “cognitive closure” issues. 🙂
    Ed Sherman, Holland

  • Yes exactly right Ed.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hello Bill, Thanks for commenting on my article and for joining in on the conversation. I appreciate your input.

    However, I’m concerned that you perhaps misunderstood my point. I made no statements about whether or not we should engage in thoughtful debate and the pursuit of truth / theological certainty. Further, I made no statements about the veracity of Bell’s book. Rather, I commented on the divisive and arrogant manner in which many Christians (on both sides) were debating about the book. I’m all for speaking the truth in love, speaking up when we disagree with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and pursuing truth/certainty. However, I’m just as concerned about the manner in which we do these things; what we say and how we say it are equally important (1 Cor 13:2). When we disagree and/or speak truth to our brothers and sisters, we must do so in a respectful and loving way.

    With respect to the recent Rob Bell theological controversy, I noticed that both Bell-defenders and Bell-detractors had a difficult time debating the issue with love, respect and humility. I wrote the article to help people (on both sides of the debate) understand why its so difficult for all of us to engage in healthy debate and why we’re prone to using harsh language and excluding those who disagree rather than engaging in healthy and respectful conversation with them.

    Christians are inevitably going to disagree on various theological issues. For example, there were several serious disagreements in the early Church. Further, I believe that disagreements can be helpful because they provide an arena for interaction, teaching, learning, and humility. I just think that we need to learn to treat each other with respect in the midst of disagreement and to truly speak the truth in love.

    Lastly, I introduced a couple of (non-psychoanalytic, non-humanistic) psychological concepts in the article to simply help people (on both sides of the debate) understand why interacting with each other in love is so difficult. When using these concepts, I made no statement about how they might inform theology. In fact, I do not believe that they inform theology at all. Rather, I think that understanding some of these underlying processes can help us learn to respectfully debate theology.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

    Blessings, friend.

    Christena Cleveland, US

  • Thanks Christena

    Thanks for joining our discussion. But whether or not you take sides with Bell is not really the point. It is the idea that those holding to firm theological convictions may be doing so, not so much because there is objective truth which is worth affirming and defending (even if we will always have a less than perfect grasp of it), but mainly because of various psychological reasons.

    Recall that atheists in the recent past also sought to use psychological and other explanations to effectively explain away the Christian faith and biblical truth claims. Think of Freud and Feuerbach and Nietzsche who all sought to find various reasons why Christians believe what they do. So it is somewhat shaky territory for those who call themselves Christians to be travelling on I would think.

    I am of course not saying there is no place for psychology and gleaning some insights from this and other social sciences (even though some have called them pseudo-sciences). We need Christian psychologists and all the rest, and they can offer some helpful insights along the way, if informed by, and under the authority of, Scripture. But when secular counselling or psychology trumps the Word of God, then we are in trouble and then we can no longer call it Christian psychology.

    I was trying to say in my article that the very same assessments you make of contemporary believers in the Bell debate could of course be levelled at the prophets, the disciples, and even Jesus himself, not to mention countless thousands of Christian martyrs who died for their faith, based on strong convictions and a fierce adherence to the truth. You seem far too dismissive of all this.

    And can I remind you that it was you who said that Christian unity “should supersede theological distinctions”. You are the one who seems quite dismissive of the importance of theological truth, theological clarity and theological certainty, all in the name of some vague Christian ecumenicism.

    But perhaps the very best commentary on your piece comes from Ed Sherman in his comment above. With all due respect, did you write your piece to deal with some inner insecurities of your own, and to establish your own “cognitive closure”? To throw around such claims about those involved in the Bell debate really does cut both ways, it seems to me. If it is true of them, then surely it is true of you as well.

    And if that is the case, then clearly we all should simply sit down and shut up, since we all have issues we are dealing with. These struggles with our own psyche obviously will cloud our theological judgments so much that no one can say anything with any degree of theological certainty.

    Sorry, but your position simply seems to lead us all to epistemological relativism, cognitive scepticism, and theological agnosticism. I think all the biblical writers and characters would disagree with you big time on this.

    And BTW, all the critiques of Bell I have read so far seem to be eminently respectful and polite, written in love, as these authors share their concerns about Bell’s heterodoxy.

    But thanks for sharing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • At bible study last week, we had a newcomer to the group who suggested Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans, and the “coloured” ethnicities come from outside Adam’s line.

    Now, how am I supposed to evaluate what he said, if not against what the bible says?

    So yes, I do bristle at the idea of uniting across theological divisions.

    I’m not going to enhance my understanding of the truth by entertaining liberal theology.

    Marcus Anderson

  • Christine wrote:

    “I noticed that both Bell-defenders and Bell-detractors had a difficult time debating the issue with love, respect and humility.”

    That, unfortunately, is a very ironic statement. How does Dr Cleveland know what motivates those who engage in the issue? I find her statement devoid of ‘love, respect and humility.’ I could even say it sounds like she is not taking her own advice!

    There is a time and a place for politeness in debate, but I notice many many many times throughout Scripture that there is a point where patience runs out with false teachings. After that, the loving response, the respectful response – especially the loving response in the sight of God – is actually to publicly denounce the heresy as such. Several times peppered throughout the Old Testament is the phrase “slow to anger, abounding in love” about God. We should mimic what God does.

    Christine sounds like she wants to raise a very human – and therefore flawed – picture of ‘love’ as the standard, but that is not how God expects us to operate. We are to follow and learn what love means from the One who is Love. From what I have read and heard, Rob Bell is very soft on hell – unlike Jesus. That is not a theological point up for debate – it is unloving to God to respect such a viewpoint if it is true of Bell. There is no other valid teaching on this “we might learn something from”. I wonder if Christine has read Revelation 2 & 3 recently and reflected on how absurd her standard would look if it was applied to what Jesus says to the Seven Churches?

    The trouble with the kind of position that Christine is taking is that it is innocuous but also insidious – it purports to be a neutral observation of theological debating (eg. she claims “I make no statements…”), but it is in fact an enabler for theological heresy to slip in because to denounce it is considered ‘unloving’ or ‘disrespectful’. She even writes about “hatred”. One might ask Christine what would be her response to outright heretical teaching? The simple truth is that Christians need to be awake to deviations from what God has told us and prepared to love God – and his truth – more than man. Our standard is Scripture. I don’t have answers to every question either (and I don’t expect to get them in the lifetime here on earth), but some things God has revealed to us (Dt 29:29) and ideas like the ones Dr Cleveland is pushing must be rejected as well.

    Mark Rabich

  • Well, now it all makes sense! I have wondered over the past two weeks what has been happening to me! I took a stand for truth at work just recently, resulting in my resignation, and have had well meaning friends (Christians and unbelievers) trying to convince me I need psycho analysis. I am being told that there is something wrong with my dogmatic stance.

    I was actually visiting someone this afternoon in a mental health facility and bumped into an old friend now working there – a Christian woman who I haven’t seen for a few years. She asked how things were going so I told her, hoping for some spiritual support, but was told “Oh, come on! Really! God won’t mind! You’ve given up good money over that?” This has been typical of what I have been getting, all round. I have had people suggest I would benefit from counseling over my decision.

    This has been a real eye opener, Bill! I have been working in mental health for the past eight years – perhaps I’ve been on the wrong side of the fence all this time and should see my GP for some medication and a referral to a psychiatrist!

    Kerry Letheby

  • I think Christena has shown considerable ‘class’ and courage by leaping into the fray of this discussion. I appreciate her clarifying her intentions. Having said all this however, I agree with you Bill. We need the truth. The Bible claims to be the truth and so did Jesus. Nowadays just as back then assurance is being spoken about as a dangerous mental condition. Jesus, Paul and the apostles were all accused at various times of being crazy. Why? Because they didn’t equivocate and they proclaimed God’s truth.
    Terry Darmody

  • Kerry,

    What was the “stand for truth at work” you made?Understand if you don’t want to say, but it is surely difficult for anyone to make comment without knowing.

    Graeme Cumming

  • Hi Graeme,
    Thanks for your interest. I am hesitant to raise the issue, because it is one of those things that Christians are divided about among themselves, but I will leave it to Bill to determine whether to post my reply to you. If you wish to forward my reply direct to Graeme instead, Bill, I won’t mind.

    In a nutshell, the issue is working on Sundays, which I refuse to do.

    When I was interviewed three years ago for my current employment, I was asked if I had any objection to working across a 7 day roster, and I explained what my objection was, but they still wanted me and made a verbal agreement with me that , instead of working a Saturday/Sunday weekend each month, I could work two Saturdays. My big mistake was not having the agreement written down.

    There has been no problem until the last few weeks, and things have now changed – different people, different management etc – keeping it very brief – and there is a requirement that everyone has to work Sundays – no exceptions. I spent a lot of time negotiating with management to no avail.

    I appreciate that doctors, nurses and emergency workers of various sorts need to work seven days – and I accept what Jesus said about doing good on the sabbath, but my job doesn’t fall into that category. My work is not essential seven days per week.

    I have had many tell me that my stance is irrational and stupid and this has come from both believers and unbelievers. Some quote to me the passages in Hebrews about the greater sabbath rest in Christ, which I believe implicitly too and believe that I have entered into that. Others tell me that Jesus mentions all the commandments int he New testament except this fourth – to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. My reply is that Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it..”it would be easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen drop put of the law.”

    As I read the commands, I see that they all require a practical response – a “do”or a “don’t”, so my interpretation of the fourth commandment has led me to make a personal commitment with the Lord that I will not work on Sunday to earn money, but only to do good works as I am led in them on that day. I plan my Sundays with care so that I don’t need to go to the shops at all and can truly have the day at home as a rest day making a point of spending a significant time in His Word for the coming week.

    I understand “holy” to be set apart for the Lord – He created the sabbath for me – for man and I don’t intend to treat that gift lightly.

    Hope that explains it for you, Graeme. I might be unemployed in a fortnight, but I have had ample opportunity to testify to what my faith is about through this to work colleagues and who knows how the Lord might use it? I must mention, to finish, that although I have had more derision than anything over my stance, I know it has had a positive impact on 2 work colleagues, so I will continue to pray for them as time goes by.

    Kerry Letheby

  • In the spirit of this article,

    An amazing man spreading the faith in an unconventional way throughout New York City!

    http://newyorkknowsbest.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/if-you-need-me-call-me-no-matter-where-you-are-no-matter-how-far/

    This cab driver is a Pastor!
    A great read!!!

    Sarah Bassett

  • Well done Kerry,

    Too many people fall into one of the devil’s simplest tricks by being taken away from church for that very reason. Over the years I have personally seen so many fall away from church simply because they put work higher on their priority list.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks Mario. I have received little encouragement over this, and I appreciate your kind words. Will also appreciate ongoing prayer. I might have come through one test, but now face the test of faith that unemployment will bring…to trust in the Lord to provide all my needs…Phil chapter 4.. Do not be anxious about anything…
    Kerry Letheby

  • Good on you Kerry, I would like to think that I would take the same attitude as you although being a weak and sinful man, I would not be so cocky as to stand and say for sure!
    Steve Davis

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