03 December 2007

Christianity Astray

by Phil Johnson



his post by Rob Bowman over at "Parchment and Pen" last week got me thinking again about the rapid erosion of evangelical distinctives and the major role the editors of Christianity Today have played in muddling the question of what differentiates historic evangelicalism from everything else—including Mormonism's aberrant doctrine of God.

So I hunted up an article published exactly three years ago in CT. It was an editorial that wagged a hypocritical finger at Anglican Church leaders for failing to deal with apostasy in their midst. The piece recounted how the Anglican Communion worldwide (American Episcopalians in particular) got to the point where they are today, rent asunder by a de facto schism over the question of whether sexually-active homosexuals qualify to be bishops in the church.

I clipped and saved that article in December 2004, because the disconnect seemed so profound between what CT's editors said and what they actually do. Their analysis of the Anglicans' failure was right on. But they themselves have been doing the very same thing to the evangelical movement.

The editorial catalogued about a half-century of low points in Episcopalian infidelity, starting with Bishop James Pike, who first openly expressed doubt about the doctrine of the Trinity back in the 1960s. According to the editorial, "[Pike's] fellow bishops, afraid that church discipline would seem medieval to the rest of America, only mildly rebuked him and dropped the issue."

CT's editorial then smugly intoned, "This failure of nerve gradually opened a hole in the church that truckloads of aberrant critics have since driven through."

That's really rich, coming from CT, whose own reportage on Mormon-Evangelical ecumenical rapprochement for more than a decade running hasn't managed to muster any kind of rebuke at all—mild or otherwise—for those within the ranks of CT's own evangelical constituency who have decided Mormonism is sound enough on the Trinity to be regarded as a version of authentic Christianity rather than a quasi-Christian cult.

In fact, the CT editors themselves have apparently accepted a broad enough view of Christ's deity that they are now comfortable saying "Mormons hold firmly to the deity of Christ." Moreover, they're so set in that view that they are not interested in publishing any reviews or articles challenging their position.

But wasn't that precisely the state of things in the Episcopalian Church in the 1960s? Too many Episcopalian leaders were unsure whether Bishop Pike's denial of the Trinity was really all that serious. CT knew better in those days. They understood that Pike's attack on historic and biblical Trinitarianism was a flat-out denial of essential Christian truth.

Today's CT editors are making the very same errors that earlier generation of Episcopal bishops made.

And don't think for a moment that re-imagining Trinitarianism in order to accommodate Mormonism is the only way CT has been demolishing the boundaries of historic evangelicalism. The magazine has consistently treated Open Theism as fodder for opinion polls and evangelical "dialogue." CT's editors have been annoyingly more obsessed with the tone of the conversation than they are with the truth of the issue; more concerned about what's "collegial" than they are with what's biblical. At times, CT's sentiments have even appeared to be on the side of those who reject the historic evangelical commitment to God's full omniscience.

CT's coverage of Emergent neo-liberalism has likewise been unnecessarily generous.

So it was ironic to see an editorial in CT taking a previous generation of Episcopal leaders to task for dealing with 1960's heresies pretty much the same way CT routinely deals with the abandonment of core evangelical principles today.

All that aside, the editorial was essentially correct. The foundation was laid years ago for the current rift in the Anglican movement. In fact, the real roots of the problem go back to Archbishop William Laud in the early 17th century, and Richard Hooker a generation before that. Hooker canonized the principle of via media (the "middle road") as the Anglican approach to Reformation, church polity, and theological controversy. Laud enforced the resulting lukewarmness and formalism of the Anglican hierarchy against everyone in the church who believed Scripture, not politics, should guide the church. Compromise has been central to the ethos of Anglicanism practically since the start of the Protestant Reformation. (Read the CT editorial for a partial inventory of recent Anglican controversies, and realize that these are only the tip of a massive, ancient iceberg.)

What I said last week about Fuller Seminary could be said of Christianity Today as well: CT's proneness to compromise is rooted in its founders' thirst for academic respectability. The pattern has been clear and is getting clearer every day with the increasing radicalization of evangelical fads. Every time a new trend, controversy, or challenge to evangelical principles arises, CT leads a stampede in whatever direction its editors think the via media lies. The resulting dialectic has dragged key sectors of today's evangelical movement into territory some of the most liberated free-thinkers of our grandfathers' generation would have probably deemed too radical.

Christianity Today has been instrumental in opening several holes in the fences around the evangelical movement. They have then paved roads for truckloads of dissidents—who are now doing the same thing to the broader evangelical movement that Bishop Pike and those who came after him did to Anglicanism in the past half century.

I'm certain I'm not the only longtime reader of Christianity Today who has that perspective. I just thought someone should actually say it right out loud.

Phil's signature

45 comments:

Doug McMasters said...

Took the words right out of my mouth; of course, mine weren't quite so well presented. Thank you, Phil.

the postmortem said...

This is interesting to me because I'm currently doing a lot of study in media criticism in college (as I prepare to be a High School English teacher).

It seems to me your criticism runs parallel to (political) conservatives (like myself) who criticize big media outlets like CBS or CNN for claiming to present "the facts" of the world with no bias. Or, if they do present bias, it's with equal opportunity for both sides to say what they think. We say that they may intend to be unbiased, but their liberal tendencies betray themselves far too often.

So my question is this, let's say I run a magazine and I'm trying to make it as "balanced" as I can. I hire 2 editors, a conservative and a liberal (theologically), and I give them an equal say in how to run the magazine. In the end, I get a magazine that represents a wide spectrum of belief.

But in the process, I am still publishing a lot of heresy, due to the liberal theologian (and hey, maybe even the conservative editor is wrong on occasion).

Is that wrong? Perhaps, because disseminating lies is still disseminating lies, even if you just want to give a fair presentation of both sides.

But it just seems like a more interesting and thought-provoking magazine doesn't it?

But perhaps someone could justify it by saying "Hey, if your eyes are spiritually darkened, reading this magazine won't make you any worse...but if you're enlightened, having known Christ through the word of God, this could be a really useful tool for you."

Is that wrong?

I'm not saying that's how CT is...but maybe that's what they're trying to do; and as much as I dislike what their editors say, it won't bother me as much as the Anglican church...not until CT claims to have a unified representation of the truth of God, not just "Evangelical Conviction", whatever that means to them.

Don't get me wrong though...it still really bugs me when they pander to heresy just 'cause they want to be cool.

Amy said...

I am always shocked that any Christian group could hold that Mormonism is "close enough" to be considered Christian.
I had a discussion on various issues with a Mormon friend who opened my eyes to some of their lesser known doctrines. They hold that Eve is blessed above all women, because her rebellion is what helped humanity to grow (able to make choices, etc.) They hold that Adam and Eve were merely innocent, not positively righteous in the garden.
They also hold that Satan and Jesus both presented plans of salvation to the Father, but God chose Jesus' plan as the better of the two, and so Jesus became God.
I could go on and on- but I'm sure most people here already know these things.
It turns my stomach when I hear about mainstream "Christian" publications like this essentially calling for Christians to unite ourselves to those who hold to absolutely heretical teachings.
Where did discernment go?

Johnny Dialectic said...

I think it was dollars that drove the decline at CT. It started as a vibrant, theological, evangelical, Carl Henry-esque vehicle for defense of the faith. But not much ad revenue. To reach a wider audience, they had to become "more things to more people" and that meant toning down the distinctives and "opening up." It re-positioned itself more as the "Time mag" of the Christian world, and that's pretty much where they are now.

Along the way, they hired editors who, indeed, seek "respectability" by avoiding anything "divisive," which they associate with old style fundamentalism.

Sadly, it may represent "Christianity Today" in our culture.

Jerry Wragg said...

Postmortem -
Here's the rub:

The title and original charter of the magazine is the issue. If presenting the "balance" between true Christianity and all non-Christian belief systems is the goal, then the mag doesn't represent "Christianity Today". Liberals, cults, & agnostic organizations are anything but Christian!

Many other magazine's present varying viewpoints within the true evangelical constituency, but these---if faithful to their charter---would never peddle (let alone flirt with) error that denies the historic Christian faith. A magazine that compares orthodox Christianity with heresy would be better titled "Apologetics Today" or "Christianity and its Counterfeits".

donsands said...

Does CT have any doctrinal essentials which are non-negotiable; that they would die for?

Mike Riccardi said...

Also, postmortem, I question the value of simply presenting all the crackpot ideas that postmodern depravity can cook up as if they were theologically (and even academically) reputable.

From my own experiences, I have seen what the "trying-to-be-fair-and-unbiased" simple presentation of ideas brings both lay Christian thinkers and pastors to. And that is a dispassionate refusal to really believe anything. You forever hear, "Well I can see both sides of the argument."

Whether this applies to the media or not, I'm not qualified to comment on it. But when you're speaking about Scriptural Truth vs. error and heresy, there must be a fair presentation of both followed by a passionate support of one and condemnation of the other, both supported by Scripture. The issues are just too important to dispassionately present.

In fact, I would go as far as saying it's arrogance to do so. If God has presented us with an ineffably glorious and beautiful Savior and Lord revealed in a body of Truth, it is arrogant to try to suppress the affection that comes from beholding such beauty. Similarly, when someone tries to tarnish that beauty, or at least treat it like it's not as beautiful as it is, it's arrogant to try to suppress the outrage that builds in those who love the Truth.

Without doing that, like Jerry Wragg said, we don't have an honest portrait of "Christianity Today."

Benjamin Nitu said...

Carl Henry would be embarrassed and disgusted with today's CT.

There is no doubt. In today's world if you want to be popular you have to compromise. And the more you compromise, the more popular you will become.

I wonder if anything like this will ever happen to Pyromaniacs?

P.S. I love the picture for this post. Is that a dead rat?

steve said...

Phil wrote: I'm certain I'm not the only longtime reader of Christianity Today who has that perspective. I just thought someone should actually say it right out loud.

Keep on saying it right out loud, Phil--and I hope others are emboldened to do so, too.

Then there's the fact David Neff, CT's editor-in-chief, is among the signers of the recent "Loving God and Neighbor Together" document that urges further dialogue about the "common ground" between the Muslim, Christian, and ancient Abrahamic faiths.

Was anyone else bothered by Philip Yancey's snarky comments about John Wesley's journal in the November 2007 issue?

Mike Riccardi wrote: From my own experiences, I have seen what the "trying-to-be-fair-and-unbiased" simple presentation of ideas brings both lay Christian thinkers and pastors to. And that is a dispassionate refusal to really believe anything.

Yet in the midst of CT's supposedly fair coverage, if you read carefully, you'll note at times they do, in fact, take sides. One example is an editorial some months ago that emphatically declared The Local Church (of Witness Lee) is not a cult. Yet anyone who does his homework on the teachings of this group will find teachings that simply do not square with those of biblical Christianity.

Thanks for the excellent blogpost, Phil.

Jerry said...

Maybe it is time for "modern evangelicalism" to come apart at the seams.

It has led to churches full of the unregenerate playing church and willing to listen to any and all new ear tickling fantasies. Far too many have "walked the aisle" to a false assurance that God loves them just as they are. They seriously need a wake up call to repentance and transformation.

We cannot love the world and tack on some "Jesus stuff" and expect to receive the commendation of a Holy God. Maybe the best thing to happen would be the disintegration of the modern evangelical movement and the resurgence of Biblical Christianity.

Just my .02, for what it is worth.

SolaMeanie said...

Outstanding post! I would have said "wow," but that's Emer***t speak.

Some observations. First, I have no doubt that Bishop Pike is now a Trinitarian, and that he probably finds the temperature a mite warm.

Second, when you consider how Anglicanism got started thanks to Henry VIII's randy ways and political scheming, I suppose the foundation was laid at the outset for later political fudging down the road.

Third, Christianity Astray is an apt nickname. Now that Mitt Romney is preparing to make a Kennedyesque speech about his faith, it will be very, very interesting (to quote Arte Johnson) to see how the evangelical media cover it. I have been waiting for someone to ask Mitt if he believes that Jesus Christ is the spirit brother of Lucifer, or that we will become gods and create our own planets, or to describe the relationship between the one they call Father God and so-called celestial sex, but no one has leapt to the challenge.

stratagem said...

CT subscribers:
Maybe the most-obvious question would be: Why do you read CT, if it's so far off-base? (Or, why not cancel your subscription and read it in the library, if you must read it). Putting cash into CT's pockets for producing garbage, merely rewards and encourages more of the same.

If the shrinking universe of doctrinally-sound evangelicals went on subscription strike, that would bring CT around quickly. Sadly, probably nothing else will.

Tim said...

Is that a dead rat?

If you don't know the difference between a rat and a possum, stay away from the Roadkill Cafe. :-)

Benjamin Nitu said...

hi Tim

I don't know man, I've seen some pretty big rats in my life. :)
And the analogy would've worked better with a rat.

That being said, I need to go to Australia to see it for myself.

steve said...

Oh, yes--love that new slogan, Phil: Cowpunching Mavericks on the Evangelical Fringe.

the postmortem said...

"Christianity and its Counterfeits"

I like it!

Well-taken Jerry.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Thanks for this!

Matt Waymeyer said...

Postmortem,

The apostle Paul said that false teachers in the church "must be silenced"(Titus 1:11), not given equal time to keep things interesting and thought-provoking.

Sharon said...

stratagem said...
CT subscribers: Putting cash into CT's pockets for producing garbage, merely rewards and encourages more of the same.

That's the first thought I had, too. I was first in line to cancel my subscription to Reader's Digest when they published the heavily edited "Bible-Lite" version of the Scriptures. And I told them why, too.

If more believers did the same with CT, it may or may not make a frozen meat chub dent, but you would be "voting with your wallet" which, IMO, is a Good Thing.

A Musician by Grace

Grigs said...

Unfortunately I know.

SolaMeanie said...

Sharon,

I have been thinking that the frozen meat chub might have outlived its usefulness.

I now hereby recommend frozen Rock Cornish game hens fired by slingshot or catapult. If you've ever been hit by a frozen Rock Cornish game hen, you'll never be the same again.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Dear PJ,

I loved the interpretive graphic photo of "Via Media"! That is hilarious! However, I assure you that there are definitely some Episcopalians and Anglicans who will not take kindly to that photo and the hearty guffaws that it inspires.

P.S. By any chance, did you happen to read my comments on Rob Bowman's article on the Parchment and Pen blog? Because I too made an observation about CT and Fuller.

On that comment thread I also asked whether it was technically correct to use the term "cult" to describe Mormonism. One poster said to refrain from using it because it's a loaded term.

Sharon said...

SolaMeanie said...

. . . If you've ever been hit by a frozen Rock Cornish game hen, you'll never be the same again.

It sounds like you speak from personal experience!

nope said...

I stopped buying CT years ago. I don't remember how long its been since I've held an issue in my hands, but I do know its been quite awhile.

I think it is helpful to be aware of what they are publishing so that we know what exactly we're dealing with, so I'm not going to say stop reading entirely. I have occasionally read some politically oriented gay editorials just so I know what they're aiming for and how they're planning to get there. Unfortunately, CT seems to be another publication/group that needs to be watched because they're not to be trusted.

Ken Silva said...

"I also asked whether it was technically correct to use the term 'cult" to describe Mormonism. One poster said to refrain from using it because it's a loaded term."

Methinks it may have been the poster who was "loaded". ;-)

SolaMeanie said...

Sharon,

I've dropped them on my toes. Ow.

Ken,

Isn't that something? I have always thought that the church reserves the right to define itself. Who cares if "cult" is a loaded term. It is what it is. Perhaps they would like pseudo-Christian better?

This reminds me of a story passed around in apologetics circles, and I think it is credible. Supposedly a few years back, a well-known evangelical leader involved in politics rode to some political event with the president of the Mormon church. Said evangelical leader was asked if he shared the Gospel with the Mormon leader. His reply? "Oh, no. That would have destroyed the values coalition we are trying to build."

So the Gospel is sacrificed on the altar of political expediency? Sad.

stratagem said...

CULT (source:Merriam Webster online www.M-W.com)
1: formal religious veneration : worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (health cults)
5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion


Well, it is a loaded term; however, definition #3 fits Mormonism currently. However, that is becoming less and less the case all the time (unfortunately). Certainly, from a Biblical Christian standpoint, they will always be a cult.

I would avoid using the term "cult" simply because it isn't very descriptive, and can raise defensiveness (and hence, close minds). Better and more helpful (in my opinion) to explain to people why Mormonism is at odds with orthodox Christian belief, and leave out any abrasive labels.

SolaMeanie said...

I can't agree on that one, strategem, simply because there are too many evangelicals willing to fudge and call Mormonism just another Christian denomination. They have to be identified as what they are. Of course, when witnessing to an individual Mormon you might want to take a more diplomatic course, but otherwise this has to be slugged out.

The Mormons are very aggressive in their promotions. "Just another testament of Jesus Christ." I'm sure you've seen their slick TV ads. I am sure Mitt will try to blur the lines even further, and enough politically active Christians who have lost their minds will help him do it.

When Mormons claim to be something they are not with such wide public campaigns, the truth must be told plainly and clearly. If you don't like the term cult, then say false religion. But don't allow the lines to be blurred.

Bill Honsberger said...

Yall are slow to the party. Fifteen years ago when they did a puff piece on Al Gore as a good southern Baptist when "Earth in the Balance" had so many pagan themes was when I knew CT had lost it. Then I think that is the same year they identified Mollencott as a "Evangelical lesbian" is when I lost it and them!

Saint Christopher said...

I love it when you track the history of these things!

Thanks for continuing to say what CT is too "Christian" to say... The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Stefan said...

Ironically, when I was first saved, I thought, "Hey, I can be comfortable being an evangelical Christian, because look at the plethora of views and opinions 'evangelicals' hold! It's a big tent!" But the Holy Spirit had already gotten ahold of me and was wrestling with me.

(I can even identify the precise turning point: May 31st of this year—soon after my baptism—as I read Edith Schaeffer's Christianity is Jewish, and her explanation of why Abraham's faith was counted to him as righteousness.)

And so I began to learn of this concept called biblical orthodoxy, and the essential doctrine of salvation by grace through faith that undergird and unite both the Old and New Testaments.

Now, I look at those same groups who count themselves as "evangelicals"—whose claim to the name made it easier for me to identify myself as one initially—and am reminded of Jesus' words in His Sermon on the Mount:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Not that we find it by our own efforts. Our flesh desires the wide gate and the easy way. May God give us the ears to hear loud and clear His Shepherd's call to obedience, and to the verdant pastures beyond the narrow gate.

Chris Hemmelman said...

Stratagem,

Read any literatue by ex-Mormons, they will be the first to tell you, Mormonism is a cult.

ezekiel said...

Solameanie,

I agree with you. One people holding to one opinion flogged themselves, danced, and called on their god to come down and consume their sacrifice all day. It never happened.

One other held to an opinion and fire came down and consumed the offering, the rocks of the alter and the water in the ditch around it....I like that opinion...

1 Kings 18:21

An entire nation was being led astray before the differences were made clear that day. We should work to make them as clear today.

Ken Silva said...

Sola,

"I have always thought that the church reserves the right to define itself. Who cares if 'cult' is a loaded term."

I'm with you my brother! Dr. Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults labeled Mormonism, "For what it is; a cult."

Cuz the way things are going, I'm afraid we may have to leave "pseudo-Christian" open for evangelicalism. ;-)

~Mark said...

"But in the process, I am still publishing a lot of heresy, due to the liberal theologian (and hey, maybe even the conservative editor is wrong on occasion).

Is that wrong? Perhaps, because disseminating lies is still disseminating lies, even if you just want to give a fair presentation of both sides."

~I deal with something akin to this on a regular basis (everyday!)and going by what I've seen there and in other like situations, somebody is going to hear/read/see something very misleading and might not turn the page to see or hear the refutation and as such, will have been mislead.

The closest thing to this which I've seen work is a setting in which an issue is represented and a qualified debater picks it apart using facts, and leaves no doubt as to its value before God.

Unfortunately that doesn't happen often.

DJP said...

I used to read CT faithfully, in the 70's and earlier '80's. Bad sign when they rejected plain-reading creationism; worse when they sold out on what the Bible said about women and the pastorate. It just continued downhill from there. I have an anthology of CT articles from when it was a truly great magazine, leading instead of following.

Since then, I've twice accepted "try us for free" offers, and each time let the subscription lapse with disgust.

steve said...

Then there's the fact CT's tagline is The Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

I'd say the magazine does more to undermine biblical convictions than bolster them.

For different reasons, I let my subscription to WORLD magazine lapse not once, but twice.

DJP said...

Maybe we could form a club?

SolaMeanie said...

Maybe "conviction" is something more in the criminal line than the traditional meaning among evangelicals.

Ouch.

Mark B. Hanson said...

I agree on CT, and I feel the same way about InterVarsity press. They are an amazing mixture of solid teaching and pseudo-evangelical fluff.

I remember when I signed up for the IVP "Send me everything you publish" club (early 80's) and was almost never disappointed. Now there's almost nothing in their popular line I find useful, and many things positively harmful.

And don't get me started on Eerdmans...

philness said...

Strategem,

Stop subscribing you say? Would you stop subscribing to your friend because he's Catholic or Emergent?

Those definitions of cult were too pretty. Was that the new and improved, charitable, not to offend edition? I bet an older Webster copy would tell it like it is.

You see, this is how one becomes desensitized to truth, we just stop telling the truth. And then when you get enough people joined up, its unquestionably the truth by the numbers.

stratagem said...

Hmmm... looking over some of the late additions from yesterday, I see that some people misinterpreted what I said, as meaning that I don't view Mormonism as a cult. In fact, I do view it as a cult. I was making the point that M. has become so mainstream, that the non-Biblical world now probably either doesn't consider them to be a cult, or soon won't. From a Biblical standpoint, they are a cult. My other point was that that's not a term you should use in a conversation where you are trying to teach or correct someone who may be sympathetic to Mormonism, because their hearing will immediately turn off if you do, and you won't convince them of much thereafter. Better to just state the facts about what M. believes, and how it conflicts with the Bible. They'll quickly see that there's a rat in there, whether they call it a 'cult' or not.

If you want to convince someone of something, it's always better to stick to the facts, rather than to name-calling.

SolaMeanie said...

Here's the definition of a cult we use in the apologetics ministry with which I am affiliated:

"Two or more people who have a real or imaginary need they are trying to meet or fulfill by believing that which is false about the person and work of the biblical Jesus Christ."

I'd love to see a judge try to rule on that if someone ever tries to litigate it.

philness said...

Stratem,

You said it, "stick to the facts". I say if you believe it as fact then speak it as fact.

PLJ III said...

Take it easy on CT. They bring us valuable offers for improving our holiness such as came in their E-Newsletter to me today from http://www.sacredmint.com/. The Sacred Cross, made with stone fragments from the hills around Jerusalem. Can't wait to order them for all of my friends!