Conservative vs Liberal Theology
October 17th, 1980 @ 7:30 PM
CONSERVATIVE THEOLOGY VS. LIBERAL THEOLOGY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Criswell Bible Institute Chapel
There were two churches of different denominations and traditions, but which for many years had enjoyed a considerable degree of spiritual unity and had fruitfully cooperated in many useful joint enterprises. Now it so happened that the four ministers of these churches all retired at about the same time. They were all men who had proved themselves to be faithful pastors, preaching and teaching the Word of life, zealous in visitation, loved by their church members, respected in their communities. In spite of the indifference of the present age, they left behind strong and well-attended churches, and their retirement caused much sorrow.
In due time the vacant pastorates were filled. In the case of Northchester, there arrived two young ministers, Reverend Smith and Reverend Jones: the product of liberal, forward-looking theological colleges, who came resolved to give their churches a new look. To the two Southchester churches however came two men, Reverend Robinson and Reverend Brown, the product of orthodox, conservative theological colleges, where the professors were so behind the times that they still actually believed in the Bible.
In Northchester things soon began to happen; and Smith and Jones figured in the headlines in the local press. Striking subjects for Sunday sermons began to appear on the church notice board, such as "God is Dead," or "All Roads Lead to Heaven," or "Modern Man Debunks the Miracles," or "Compassion is Better than Chastity," or "Salvation by Social Reform." Smith and Jones were often away from home during the week. And the local newspapers contained frequent pictures of them parading with banners outside South Africa House and the American Embassy, or lying in the road to prevent trucks making deliveries to factories suspected of exporting goods to countries whose regimes they violently opposed. And they were frequently active on college campuses, aiding the two well-known avant-garde revolutionary leaders Tarquin Albow and Petro Hines. All this created great excitement in Northchester.
In Southchester, Robinson and Brown pursued a much more pedestrian course. They preached carefully prepared and thoughtful sermons on such old fashioned themes as "God is Love," and "The Way of Salvation"; and were so reactionary that they encouraged people to read their Bibles and to pray. On weekdays they visited the sick, made contact with new arrivals in the town, comforted the bereaved and the dying. None of these activities ever gained even a passing reference in the local newspapers.
Strangely, however, the two churches in Northchester began to empty, while the two churches at Southchester began to fill. Both the church members and general public at Northchester were so hopelessly old-fashioned that they were puzzled and even disgusted with the progressive methods of Smith and Jones; and registered their disapproval by staying away from their churches. At Southchester, contrary to all predictions, church members and the public came to respect and love Robinson and Brown; and more and more turned to them for help in their problems in this perplexing modern world.
The upshot of all of this was that the two Northchester churches grew so weak that it became impossible for them to carry on separately. Meetings were held for the purpose of meaningful open-ended dialogue, to see whether some ecumenical scheme for structural organic union could be arranged. However difficulties were encountered, for it was found that there were serious doctrinal differences among the members of the two churches. It was at this point that the well-known ecumenical bishop, Dr. Tracy Spencer, was called in; and after prolonged discussion, the financial position of the churches became so acute, that union on any terms was inescapable. At a subsequent press conference the bishop announced that a brilliant new concept had emerged: "We have settled our doctrinal differences," the bishop proudly announced, "by producing a church constitution whereby the minister and members will be free to believe anything or nothing. In this age of doubt, it is clearly unreasonable that anybody should be required to believe anything in particular. This will set a pattern for the great world church," he added.
As a result of the union at Northchester, one church building was sold to pay the debts. Smith received a redundancy payment, and trained and became a psychiatrist; while Jones became minister of the united church. Some of the residue of the church members, puzzled and distressed, left the church. Some of them joined a local gospel hall, where a humble layman faithfully administered the Word of life, while, most regrettably, others gave up church attendance all together.
These proceedings were widely hailed in most of the religious and secular press as an outstanding example of ecumenical enterprise. Meanwhile, at Southchester, congregations continued to grow. Baptisms and additions to the churches were frequent; and soon the church buildings had to be enlarged. Missionary giving increased from year to year. But nothing about what was happening at Southchester ever received any publicity; it was not considered newsworthy.
That is a parable of our times.
Why, why follow the pattern of ecclesiastical death exemplified by the churches of Northchester? Why turn aside from the preaching of the gospel, from soulwinning and evangelism, from mission outreach and world conversion, from the rebirth of the human heart and the remaking, recreation of the human spirit, to the empty palaver of sterile, ecumenical liberalism and social amelioration? Why? Why? We cannot but be moved by the lamentable cry of the weeping prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 2:10-13 he said:
Pass over the isles of the sea and consider if there be such a thing.
For My people hath changed their Glory for that which doth not profit.
Be astonished, O ye heavens, and be horribly afraid, saith the Lord.
For My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
Why turn aside from the preaching of the gospel of Christ to all of these ecumenical or social ameliorating messages that destroy the church and send the people away lost and confused? Why? In a thousand tongues and in a thousand languages the whole world itself cries, "Why?" By the blood of the cross and the wounds of Jesus, why?" In the Hebrew tongue, lama? "Why?" In the Greek tongue, hinati? "Why?" In the Latin tongue, cur? "Why?" In the French tongue, porquoi? "Why?" In German, warum? "Why?" And in Spanish, ¿por quÃ©? "Why?"
A Methodist layman, writing in one of their magazines, said, quote,
It seems that in recent years our younger preachers began to get less emotional and more intellectual. Their sermons were less like a sermon and more like a lecture. The ‘you must be born again’ kind of religion disappeared. We quit singing, ‘There is Wonder-Working Power in the Blood,’ and started singing some new song with a different kind of message. We became interested in something that people call ‘the social gospel.’ The layman listened, yawned, then started playing golf on Sunday afternoon. Today, Methodist laymen want to recapture some of that ‘you must be born again’ religion. They want to be stirred and moved. They want a religion that is strong medicine. They want a faith that is filled with spirit and with fire –
end quote. God bless that Methodist layman!
Why turn aside from the preaching of the gospel to these messages that empty our churches? Why embrace a theology that has already emptied all the churches of Europe and has ruined the evangelistic witness of our Lord in New England, in the northern states of America, and is threatening to destroy our own institutions and churches in our Southern Baptist Zion. Why?
A survey was made – all the churches of New England – and the survey recounted, if you were to take out four-fifths of all the pews in the churches of New England, they would never be missed.
In Acts 10:33, we have a magnificent, definitive presentation of the holy purpose that lies back of our preaching and worship. The Roman centurion, Cornelius, avows to Simon Peter, quote, "Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God." Whereupon Simon Peter began to preach to the Gentiles in Caesarea the Lord Jesus, saying, "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins" [Acts 10:43]. From the Scriptures Simon Peter preached Jesus and the remission of sins. That’s the finest definition of church that I know in the Bible. "We are all here present before God, to hear the things that are commanded thee of God" [Acts 10:33]. And Simon Peter preached the Lord Jesus"; all of these Scriptures point to Him [Acts 10:43].
Somebody said to Spurgeon, "Your sermons all sound alike." And he made that classic reply, "That’s correct. From whatever text I take in the Bible, I make a beeline to the cross, preaching Jesus." [Amen!]
What was central there in Cornelius, with the Word of God pointing to the remission of sins in Christ Jesus [Acts 10:43], must everlastingly be central; namely, the preaching of the Word of God, the atonement of Christ [Romans 5:11], the remission of sins [Matthew 26:28]. This is worship at its highest: all the faculties of the mind, emotion, heart, soul, and will, raised to their highest uses.
So many times people with a liturgical background will say, "You Baptists don’t worship." It is the opposite: worship is not genuflection or the empty repetition of litanies; worship is with our minds and hearts and souls and wills lifted up unto God, under the preaching of the gospel. Romans 10:17 says, "Faith cometh by hearing, hearing the Word of God." First Corinthians 1:21 avows, "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." And of course, 2 Timothy 4:1-2: "I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom; Preach the Word." That’s what our assignment is.
What does God say, that is, if God says anything? In Jeremiah 37:17 is one of the most dramatic scenes that you will find in the Bible. Zedekiah is the last king of Judah, before the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah is in prison. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar are holding Jerusalem in a vise. And the king sent for Jeremiah, and asked Jeremiah, "Is there any word from the Lord? Does God say anything? If God says anything, what does God say?" Never mind book reviews, and lectures on social advancement, or discussions on capital and labor and HEW, and ERA, and CIA and the AFL-CIO. We can buy a magazine for thirty-five cents and read all about that on the sofa after dinner, if we don’t fall asleep. We know what the politician says. We know what the courts say. We know what the economist says. We know what the social worker says. We know what the editorial writer says. We know what the radio and TV commentator says. What the world wants to know is does God say anything?
What can save our souls from hell? What can deliver our people from damnation? Who can purify our hearts? Who can give us hope and redeem our nation? God has a word to the world, to the people, to America, to the city, to the town, to the village, to the people who sit in front of your pulpit. What does God say?
All of us could not but be amazed at the boldness of Solzhenitsyn, this dissident from the Soviet Union, when he delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. "Our spiritual life," he said, "has been lost in both the West and the East." And he called for a spiritual upsurge. He entitled his speech "A World Split Apart." It could as well have been called "The Decline of the West." He speaks of our Western civilization as entering this present period of spiritual exhaustion. Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. He made a final appeal: in ending his speech, he called for man’s renewed sense of obligation to God. No one on earth has any other way left, but upward.
This is so true. What the world needs is not some preacher standing in the pulpit rehashing what the people have been listening to and reading all week long. What the people need on Sunday is to listen to a man of God who has a word from the Lord who alone can regenerate our hearts and save us from damnation and destruction. The drivel that some men preach is an astonishing development to me. While the whole world is falling into hell, what they do up there in the pulpit is nothing short of a marvel and astonishment, I say.
Some of us who were in the seminary went down to a certain church in Louisville and listened to the preacher. He was one of these fellows that we had heard much about. So he was preaching that morning from Shakespeare. Well, after the service was over, we went up to him, and we were talking to him about his sermon, preaching from Shakespeare. And we said to him, "We thought in the church that you ought to preach from the Bible." And he replied, "I finished the Bible last year; now I’m preaching Shakespeare."
I cannot think but of Henry Thoreau, who in Walden Pond, said, "I had rather sit on a pumpkin in Walden Pond, listening to the chickadee-dees, than those dry D.D.’s in Boston."
One time, in our pulpit, I nearly fell out of my chair when a most learned and affluent and gifted Christian leader, I mean one of these high men up there in the corporate world, a man of great wealth, and background, and culture, and economic power, when he spoke thousands listened and obeyed. I nearly fell out of my chair, when he said in our pulpit, "I had rather listen to a man who says, ‘I seen,’ if he has seen something, than to listen to a man who says, ‘I have seen,’ if he ain’t seen anything." I’m exactly like him.
When the man stands up to preach, I love to hear him preach with great assurance and authority: "This is the Word of God." Why go to church to listen to a preacher rehash what we have read and heard and seen all week long in every newspaper, in every magazine, on every radio and TV station in the land? You listen to me: you preach a psychological sermon, and any professor of psychology seated in the audience will know twice as much about it as you do. You preach a sociological sermon, and any professor of sociology in the audience listening to you will know twice as much about it as you do. You preach a political sermon, and any politician in the audience will know twice as much about politics as you do. You preach a sermon on foreign affairs, or the United Nations, and any state official; any man in the department of government seated in the audience will know twice as much about it as you. You preach a sermon on social amelioration, and any social worker out there will know twice as much about it as you do. But you preach a sermon on the living Word of the living God, and nobody out there knows half as much about it as you do! That is your province and your heavenly calling. Nobody can approach you. Nobody can stand as an equal with you. Man, you have studied it. You have prayed over it. You’ve poured your life into it. And when you stand up there and say, "Thus saith the Lord," there’s no Ph.D. in psychology, there is no graduate of a business institution with a business degree, there is no high official in government, there is nobody that can approach you. You are unique and alone a messenger from God.
Drive toward, call for, pray for, preach for repentance and faith unto salvation, and you will be fulfilling your heavenly mandate. To the senator and to the congressman, he ought to get right with God. Are you saved? Do you know the Lord? To the legislator and the judge on the bench, do you know God? Are you right with the Lord? Is your family saved? To the governor and to the cabinet member, to the president of the bank, as well as to the garner of trash on the street, have you been saved?"
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
["Have You Been to Jesus for the Cleansing Pow’r?" Elisha A. Hoffman]
That is our assignment.
I have been here in Dallas, as you know, for thirty-six years. I want to ask you, you’re reasonable, and intelligent, and conscious, and capable of fine judgments, I want to ask you something, and you answer it reasonably: for thirty-six years, I have been here in Dallas, preaching for the last, about, thirty years, three times every Sunday. And for, I’d say, twenty-five or more of those years, preaching again on Wednesday night. I have a larger audience now after thirty-six years, than I have ever had. Now, I want to ask you a humble and simple question: what if for thirty-six years, three times on Sunday, and one time on Wednesday night, I had been preaching on literature? I have often said, "If I had an extra life to live, I would love to be a professor of English literature." What if for thirty-six years I had lectured on English literature in that pulpit, three times on Sunday and once on Wednesday night? What if I had lectured on economics? What if I had lectured on politics? What if I had lectured on social progress and amelioration? What if I had lectured on any other subject that comes to your mind, and had done it for thirty-six years, four times every week? I can tell you, and you can verify it in your own judgment, within a month I would have present a handful of people in that church. And after several months, I would be there by myself. But after thirty-six years, I am now in my thirty-seventh year, after thirty-six years preaching Christ and Him crucified [1 Corinthians 2:2], I have a larger audience now than I have ever had in my life. And I believe it will continue to grow until I lay this mantel down. There is nothing comparable to it. Why turn aside from it into all of these bypaths, which mean your own destruction and the destruction of the church?
I have been several times in Japan. And while I was in Japan on one of those mission trips, at one time, let’s see, thirty-one years ago, I was there for three months; beginning in the north and holding one-day or three-day revival meetings, clear down to Kagoshima, the last prefecture and the last town down there Kyushu; just day after day after day, holding those meetings in Japan. And while I was there, there were two things that especially I wanted to do: I wanted to go to Kyoto, the sacred city of Japan that was never bombed. I wanted to go to Kyoto, to visit Doshisha University, the first great school, Christian school, in Nippon. And I wanted to go to Kumamoto, and to stand on that hill where the Kumamoto band had signed their commitment to Christ, with their blood; opening the vein in their wrist, they signed that Kumamoto covenant in their blood.
What happened, briefly, just summarize it, was this: in 1854, Commodore Perry opened Japan to the Western world, and especially to the United States. In 1858, just four years later, a young boy, sixteen years of age, Neeisma, walking along, saw a leaf floating on a pond; wading out into the pond, he retrieved it: it was a piece out of the Bible. Giving himself to a deep hunger and thirst for the truth represented on that one leaf, he finally made his way aboard ship as a stowaway to the United States, to Boston; there was received by one of the rich men who owned the steamship company, was educated, and went back to Japan, and founded the school that became known as the great Doshisha University.
Now, in 1872, at Kumamoto, a large island on Kagoshima prefecture, they had a military school and had invited Captain L. L. James to come to teach in the military academy in Kumamoto. He was a devout Christian. And in the evening, he invited those brilliant young Japanese students in the military academy to come to his house to learn to speak English. And the textbook that he used was the Bible, the Word of God. And night after night after night, those brilliant young men from the academy, reading the Bible, learning English, the Spirit of God in convicting power reached into their hearts, and they confessed their faith in Christ and became Christians.
Now when they did that, they fell immediately into persecution and renunciation. Their families disowned them. Some of them were compelled to commit suicide. There was a little band of them who became known as the Kumamoto band, who went there where I wanted to visit, and under a tall tree they made that covenant to be true to Christ until death, and signed it in their blood. And Captain James took the little Kumamoto band to the Doshisha, to Neesima, and deposited that little group of faithful Japanese student young men in Neesima’s hands at the Doshisha University.
One of those men who belonged to the Kumamoto band was named Paul Kanamori. Paul Kanamori was a flame; he was brilliant and a marvelous teacher and orator. He became head of the department of theology in the Doshisha University, and he preached the gospel of Christ all over Japan, and was pastor of the largest church in Tokyo. In those days, in those days, as professor of theology in the Doshisha, which was a great, flaming witness for Christ and for the evangelization of Japan, in those days, Paul Kanamori was introduced to German higher criticism, to German rationalism, the Belhausen, and Bauer, and Tϋbingen school of theology, to Strauss and all of those German theologians who had decimated the Christian faith. As a professor and a student, he became interested, was introduced to German rationalistic theology; and finally came to the place where he closed his Bible, resigned his church, resigned his pulpit, resigned his place in the Doshisha, his chair of theology, resigned his whole commitment to Christ, though he had signed it with his own blood in Kumomoto, and because of his brilliance, he became a minister in the Japanese government.
For twenty years Paul Kanamori continued as a minister in the Japanese government, and represented the economic life of the government of Japan to the people, a minister of economics. His wife continued devout; and their nine children his wife faithfully brought up in the love of the Lord. She never wavered, though her husband had renounced the faith and resigned his place as pastor and professor in the university – for twenty years.
Upon a day, while Paul Kanamori was on a mission for the government, word came to him that his wife had died. It was a staggering blow to that brilliant cabinet member. He loved his wife; he loved his family. And returning home, after the memorial services, he was seated in his library, alone, in deepest despair and dejection over the sudden, unexpected death of his wife and the mother of those nine children. While he was seated there, with his head bowed, in despair, in his library, his youngest child, a little girl five years old, came into the room, and climbed up in her father’s lap, and began to talk to her father about the mother. Being just five, she had no ultimate understanding of the Christian faith, and just announced to her father that her mother had gone away, and her mother was in heaven, and how much she missed her mother, and asked her father if he would go to heaven and bring back her mother, that she might visit her and see her; and then added she loved her daddy also, and then her father could come back. But she wanted to see her mother in heaven.
The brilliant professor sat there in his chair, with his five-year-old daughter, and tried to explain to her that there is no God, and no heaven, and no Christ, and no hope beyond the grave! And he failed in his explanation utterly, absolutely! The little girl couldn’t understand that in death her mother had ceased to exist. To the little child, her mother was somewhere, though she couldn’t understand where. Finally, in despair, Paul Kanamori pushed her away, and out of the room, and closed the door to his library. And for the first time in twenty years, walked over to the shelf, and took down an old, black Book: the Bible, the Word of God.
Seated there in the library, he began to read again the promises we have in Christ Jesus. "If I go away, I will come again, receive you to Myself. I am preparing a place for you" [John 14:2-3], God having prepared some better thing for us. And there in the library, Paul Kanamori re-gave and rededicated himself to the Lord. And coming out of that experience, up and down Japan for the years and the years and the years that he lived to be an old, old man, he preached to the thousands and the thousands the faith that once he sought to destroy, and did destroy.
My young friends, there is no substitute for the gospel, none. It is our hope. It is our promise. It is our power. It is our message. It is our preaching. It is our all in all. It is everything the world needs, and the blessing of our own souls and our own hearts. Why turn aside from it to preach some other weak, anemic, doomed to failure gospel? I don’t understand. I could never understand.
May I close with what to me is one of the most moving incidents in English literature? As some of you, I have stood in Edinburgh and looked at that marvelous, beautiful monument to Sir Walter Scott seated there beneath that beautiful shrine; a beautiful tribute to that marvelous Christian Scot novelist and poet. When he lay dying, he said to his son-in-law Lockhart, "Bring me the Book." And the son-in-law said, "Father, there are so many books in the library. Which book?" And the great Scottish bard replied, "Son, there is just one Book. Bring me the Book." And Lockhart brought his father-in-law the Bible. And that great genius of English literature died with that Bible in his hands:
"There is just one Book," cried the dying sage;
"Read me the old, old story."
And the winged word that that can never fade
Wafted his soul to glory.
There’s just one Book.
[Author and Work Unknown]
And the Lord bless us as we give ourselves to the preaching of that gospel and the ministry of that Word.