Friday, September 09, 2011

Countering Anti-confessionalism – Part 1

Much of contemporary Christianity has forsaken its roots and has become overtly non-confessional. Churches are no longer Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist, but rather they have become non-denominational and even inter-denominational. First Baptist Church has changed its name to The Journey, and the Bible Church has become the New Life Church. The Church on the Rock came out of the Assembly of God, but who is to know? Churches are afraid to define themselves and tell people what they believe. Doctrinal ambiguity has replaced the old confessions of faith, and contemporary Christianity seems quite content with identifying itself with only vague generalities. The goal is to experience “Jesus,” and find personal meaning and purpose without any clear definitions. This exchange of confessions for concessions is the new mystical theology of today’s Christianity.

There seems to be several reasons why contemporary Christianity has replaced their doctrinal confessions with vague and loose generalities: (1.) indifference, (2.) ignorance, (3.) pragmatism, and (4.) mysticism. Of these four reasons, mysticism is the one we want to expose in these posts. It is not as if the other three reasons are not relevant, but it appears that mysticism is the real root behind the other three reasons. Before we jump into mysticism, let us quickly highlight the first three reasons confessions have dropped from contemporary Christianity.

1. Indifference

Some Christians do not see any value in confessions of faith. It is not as if these believers are against confessions, they just haven’t given them much thought. The thinking goes like this: doctrine is not all that important, as long as people love Jesus. When looking for a new church to join, those in this group are not concerned about the doctrinal standards of the church, as much as they are learning about the church’s children’s programs and musical style of worship. What marks a good church is not its beliefs, but their attractive programs.

2. Ignorance

Generally, this group consists of those who pride themselves in making the “Bible” their preferred confession of faith. “No creed but the Bible” is their creed. Those who pride themselves in this type of anti-creedal position generally think a creed or confession suppliants the Word of God as the ultimate authority of faith and practice. This viewpoint may come from a well-intentioned heart, but it also stems from an uninformed mind. As B. H. Carroll explained, “There never was a man in the world without a creed. What is a creed? A creed is what you believe. What is a confession? It is a declaration of what you believe. That declaration may be oral or it may be committed to writing, but the creed is there either expressed or implied.”[1] Carroll’s point is that it is impossible not to have a creed or a confession. Just because a church refuses to adopt a confession or put their beliefs in writing does not mean that they are not still creedal because they still have their own interpretation of Scripture. To say, “I have no creed but the Bible,” is like saying my only creed is my understanding of the Bible, yet refusing to actually elaborate upon your understanding of the Bible.

3. Pragmatism

Another reason that churches do not want to define themselves doctrinally is because public confessions are thought to be too restrictive. Confessions get stored in the attic because the goal is to grow! Thus, the more inclusive the church is the better. To accommodate today’s objective the church’s creed is now: “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doors.” This creed is inclusive and shuts no religious person out. This type of ecumenical openness comes from a refusal to make a public stand for the truth. For a church to say they have an “open mind” is to say that they have not come to any conclusions as of yet. All visitors with their diverse opinions and diverse lifestyles are welcome to join in the ongoing discussion. To confirm and expose the depravity of man, for instance, may offend seekers and prevent them from coming to church and experiencing “Jesus” in worship. Thus, it is best to minimize doctrinal truth and keep “love” (a subjective emotion) and a wishier-washier Jesus as the focal point. These pragmatic ends, then, are the best way to grow the church and connect people with the love of Jesus.

4. Mysticism

One of the main problems, if not the main problem, behind today’s anti-confessional Christianity is mysticism. Mysticism is an attempt to find meaning without definitions. It seeks an existential experience for self-validation or a personal experience “that speaks to me” outside of Scripture. Because of a desire for something new or directly personal, doctrine only gets in the way. For churches to help bring people (sinners included) into a worshipful experience, the focus must not be based upon articulated truth, but upon the emotions of the worshiper. There need not be any doctrinal foundation behind the emotions as long as the emotions are authentic. When words are used, it is not their objective meaning that is important, but rather their subjective connotations. Vague religious terms, such as god, spirit, Jesus, and even the word gospel are fine as long as they are not clearly defined. It is better to allow the worshiper to attach his own meaning to these religious terms; and as long they remain vague, they can convey something that is transcendental and supernatural. And again, the more spiritual, transcendental, mystical and vague the worship lyrics and the sermon are, the more likely it is to stimulate an emotional and ineffable experience for the worshiper. The goal starts out as wanting to have a spiritual connection with God, but the experience itself is sought out more than God Himself. “Here I Am to Worship,” as the song goes, could lead to this type of self-focus. It is this drive and desire for a mystical experience today that acts as a thick, dark cloud seeping into the cracks of the contemporary church with the advertisement to bring about authentic worship. For mysticism to work, clear doctrinal teaching must be left as a thing of the past.

The Nature of Mysticism

Mysticism may sound like a mysterious and difficult subject to get a handle on, but in reality, the basic tenets of mysticism are straightforward. In all the various forms of mysticism, there are three basic ideas. (1.) Ultimate reality (ontology) is ineffable or unknowable (transcending human language and rational thought). (2.) The only way to know (epistemology) this ultimate reality is by some form of existential experience (by existential experience I mean an experience that transcends the rational process of cognitive thought). (3.) Once Mystics/worshipers have experienced the ultimate reality, it is impossible for them to communicate or share this experience with others—for it remains ineffable and thus mysterious. Different types of mysticism have different labels for this “ultimate reality” and various methods of achieving this existential experience, but they all seek some form of connection with the ultimate reality that transcends the cognitive thought process. The bottom line is that mysticism allows the worshiper or religious seeker to have an experience without having to back it up objectively from Scripture.

The Introduction of Mysticism into Christianity

Christian Mysticism is rooted in the notion that the real nature of God is ineffable or indefinable. That is, God is so utterly different, separate and transcendent, that the slightest knowledge of God is completely unattainable. God’s knowledge of Himself and our knowledge of God are equivocal (entirely different).

Plato was one who believed that the essence of God could not be explained: “Now to discover the Maker and the Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered him, to declare him to all men were a thing impossible.”[2] Prior to Plato, Xenophanes likewise claimed, “There never was, nor ever will be, any man who knows with certainty the things about the gods and about all things which I tell of. For even if he does happen to get most things right, still he himself does not know it. But mere opinions all may have.”[3]

For the Church Fathers, there seemed to be something noble in this line of reasoning. What is more glorifying to God than to exalt Him to the highest extent? God is not like man; He is absolute, eternal and transcendent. God is infinite; man is finite. Is this not the teaching of Scripture? Because of these presuppositions, many early theologians went on to teach that God’s essential being was utterly unknowable. Gregory of Nazianzus believed, “It is difficult to conceive of God, but to define Him in words is an impossibility.”[4] Justin Martyr viewed the names of God, such as ‘Father,’ ‘God,’ and ‘Lord’ as only vague shadows, “derived from his good deeds and functions,”[5] rather than a true depiction of the real nature of God. Athanasius agreed, “He is exalted above all being and above human thought.” Origen, Eusebius, and many others followed suit with this way of thinking, culminating with the greatest of all the early Church Fathers – Augustine. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Augustine speculated: “For who can declare the Truth as it actually is? I venture to say, my brothers, perhaps John himself has not declared it as it actually is, but, even he, only according to his powers. For he was a man speaking about God – one inspired, indeed, by God but still a man.”[6]

This foundation of ineffability established by the Patristic Fathers drove mystical theology into the dark ages. If God is unknowable, and if Scripture fails in communicating His nature, then there must be another, more mystical way of ascertaining the real knowledge of the Divine. Pseudo-Dionysius (4th to 5th cen.) is considered to be the Father of Christian Mysticism, followed by Bernard of Clarivaux (1090-1153), Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), Bonaventure (1221-1274), and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed a mystical theology that required the seeker to lay down the Scriptures and close off the mental faculties in order to enter into a mystical experience with the Divine. For instance, Bonaventure speaks for all these Medieval Mystics when he remarked:
Do thou, O friend, push on boldly to the mystic vision, abandon the work of the senses and the operations of the reasoning faculty, leave aside all things visible and invisible, being and nonbeing, and cleave as far as possible, and imperceptibly, the unity of Him who transcends all essences and all knowledge.[7]

Mysticism may have laid low slightly during the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, but it has come back to life and regained popularity and academic clout by revamping itself under the name of existentialism. Existentialism is not a belief system or an ideology that encompasses any one particular set of core beliefs. Existentialists can be atheists, theists, deists, pantheists, materialists, hedonists, or a proponent of any other philosophical system of reality. This is because existentialism is not bound to any particular ontological system, but rather is a method of epistemology or the doctrine of knowledge.

Epistemology is concerned with how finite individuals can ascertain universal truth. The other two major methods of epistemology are rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism says that truth is ascertained by the use of reason and the laws of logic. Empiricism says that truth is ascertained by the use of sense perception and personal experience.


It is impossible to understand existentialism without understanding what has also led to postmodernism. This is not just because existentialism originated out of the same environment as postmodernism, but also because it is within postmodernism that existentialism flourishes today. Technically speaking, Postmodernism is considered a condition or assessment of society. It has followed on the heels of the age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Supposedly, for the last quarter century we have been living in the Postmodernism Period. Yet, if we define postmodernism as a philosophical rubric of thought that denies the possibility of knowing ultimate truth, then the foundations of postmodernism reaches back into the Modern Period was man become increasing skeptical. In this sense, I use the term postmodernism not to identify a period of time, but as an epistemological framework that denies the possibility of man ascertaining absolute truth. Accordingly, postmodernism is fallen man giving up on absolute truth while still holding onto a false notion of personal and individual autonomy when man started denying knowability of absolute truth. Postmodernism is at least honest with itself; if there is no divine revelation, then there is not universal truth and no ultimate purpose and meaning in life. In short, postmodernism is a presupposition that ultimate reality (God) is ineffable and any attempt to ascertain unto this knowledge is futile. Man is bound to his own finiteness, which leads to meaninglessness and hopelessness. Postmodernism is basically despair. And this despair is the nature result of humanism – man’s attempt to anchor his knowledge of how he knows what he knows in himself.

The Death of Rationalism

During the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, man felt confident that every bit of truth could be ascertained by use of reason and the empirical senses. Knowledge would increase until there was literally nothing else to learn.

The quintessential rationalist was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). By the reasoning process alone, Descartes believed man was able to prove the existence of the ultimate reality – God. Descartes started by doubting the existence of everything, even his own existence. Yet, in doubting, he could not doubt his own existence, or otherwise he would not be able to doubt. Thus, he claimed, “cogito ergo sum” – I think (I doubt), therefore I am. Secondly, seeing that doubt is uncertainty and uncertainty is an imperfection, he concluded that he was imperfect. Yet, since it is illogical for something greater to come from something lesser, he concluded that the idea of the perfect and ultimate being – God – could not have arisen from himself, seeing that he was imperfect and a lesser being. In short, by the use of reason alone, Descartes attempted to establish universal truth without the aid of sensory perception.[8]

John Locke (1632-1704), the great empiricist, took a dagger to the very heart of rationalism by claiming that deductive reasoning is impossible without ideas and ideas are impossible without sense perception. According to Locke, ideas are not preprogrammed (a priori) in the mind, but rather they are gained by experience and sense perception. People are born with a tabula rasa (blank tablet) and ideas are collected only by experience. Deductive reasoning may process those ideas into knowledge, but again not until those ideas have been ascertained by the five senses. This means, according to Locke, that man’s knowledge is limited to what the five senses are able to discern. That which transcends the sensory perception (e.g., God) will always remain unknowable.

The Death of Empiricism

David Hume (1711-1776) claimed that it is empirically impossible to determine any universal truth because it is impossible to observe causality. Science is based upon the relationship between cause and effect. Yet, science cannot prove causality by observation. By examination, we may notice that “A” takes place before “B,” but this does not prove that “A” is the cause of “B.” Even if we observe that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius every time, that does not mean that heat was the cause of the water boiling. Who is to say with one hundred percent certainty that the next time water boils, it may do so without heat? Europeans used to think that doves where all white, that is until they learned that in Australia black doves existed. To know anything truly, we must know it exhaustively. Without universal knowledge to begin with, which finite man can never obtain from his limited reference point, universal truth will always remain unknowable.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was even more influential in placing the knowledge of ultimate reality out of reach. In his book The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant reasoned that there are two limitations on what we can know. The first is the totality of what exists and the second is the totality of what we are able to apprehend. According to Kant, if something does not exist, it is unknowable. More importantly, even if something does exist (e.g., God) and if we are unable to apprehend it, it remains unknowable. Kant divided existence into two spheres, the noumena – the world as it actually is, and the phenomena – the world as it appears to us. According to Kant, we can never know the world as it truly is, but only the phenomena world of appearance. Eyes are able to perceive visual images of reality, ears are able to apprehend various sounds of realty, and the other three senses are able to discern more information, but only according to their abilities. Who is to know if there are other dimensions of reality that remain hidden? In essence, Kant established a transcendental wall that prevents man from ever truly knowing reality – that is, reality as it truly exists.

The Death of Absolutes

Throughout history, people have thought antithetically – if something is true, the opposite is false. This is basic logic 101. Georg Hegel (1770-1830), however, turned everything upside down with his dialectic method of reasoning. According to Hegel, as with Kant, it is impossible to know reality as it truly exists. The only knowledge we can hope for is knowledge of the world as it appears, and the world of appearance is a world of constant change. There is nothing in the universe that is fixed and permanent – everything is in flux. If everything is changing, then man’s concept of reality must always be changing as well. According to Hegel, man learns by contrast and comparison, and then drawing a conclusion. Yet, once that conclusion is made, it will be contrasted again with new information that leads to a new conclusion, with a progression that never ends. Thus, what use to be black and white, is now relative – depending upon where you stand in progressive history.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) gave scientific support to Hegel's dialectics with his theory of general relativity. Hegel changed reasoning from a straight-line of thesis and antithesis to a pyramid adding a third point – synthesis. In the same way, Einstein saw a third point existing in the universe. In addition to time and space, Einstein added a space-time continuum. Before Einstein, scientists considered the speed of light as traveling in a one-dimensional straight line through space and time. In the theory of general relativity, Einstein claimed that due to the graviton of large bodies, light curves as it travels through space and time. Because of the curvature, the speed of light is faster at the edge of the universe. What once seemed to be a constant speed of 186,282 miles per second now turns out not to be as fixed (absolute) as scientists once supposed.

How fast does a .30-06 caliber bullet travel? 2,950 feet per second may be the answer. It depends on the reference point at which the speed is calculated. Are we standing on the surface of the sun and with the speed of the earth calculated into the equation, or should we calculate the speed from a neighboring solar system? Since nothing is fixed and there is no ultimate reference point, everything is relative. Just because this might be the way you see the world, does not mean that this is how Johnny sees it, and who is to know how the world actually even exists?

The Death of God

Because of this transcendental wall hindering finite man from seeing ultimate reality as it is in itself, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) concluded, “God is dead.” By this statement, he did not mean that God did not exist, but that we being finite have no way of knowing. We are bound to our finiteness in a world that is ever changing with no ultimate reference point. Thus, we are bound to a fragmented knowledge based upon our individual perception of reality.

The Death of Meaning

If there is no ultimate truth, then there is not ultimate meaning or purpose behind anything. In the end, postmodernism leads to nihilism. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) claimed that “existence precedes essence,” and this rules out any ground for meaning. Nihilists believe that each individual is randomly “thrown” into an unresponsive and meaningless universe without any hope of knowing why.

The Birth of Existentialism

Nevertheless, man, even the philosopher, cannot live without meaning or purpose. To live consistently with the conclusions of postmodernism is an impossibility. Those who have attempted to do so have often ended their lives in despair or suicide. If there is no meaning in life, and if man cannot live without meaning, what is man to do? The answer is to create meaning. Thus Nietzsche, after claiming that God was dead, went on to say that we are now forced to create our own god. Sartre, likewise, concluded that since life is meaningless, we must choose to construct our own meaning. Some existentialists have chosen hedonism (Onfray), others pragmatism (Dewey), power (Nietzsche), pantheism (Jaspers) or theism (Kierkegaard).To prove to others that their version of meaning is truly meaningful is impossible and unimportant. The main drive for existentialists is to individually discover personal identity and meaning for themselves. This is existentialism – establishing meaning in a world without meaning with the knowledge that there is no rational or empirical foundation for that meaning.

Part 2 will focus how Existentialism was introduced into Christianity, the appearance of the Emergent Church, the influence of mysticism and, finally, the corrective to mysticism and the case for confessions.


[1] B. H. Carroll, “Creeds and Confessions of Faith,” in Baptists and their Doctrines, eds. Timothy and Denise George (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 81.

[2] Plato, “Timaeus,” in The Dialogues of Plato, Translated by B. Jowett. (New York, NY: Random House, 1937), 12.

[3] As cited in Frame, John. The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 107.

[4] Gregory of Nazianzus “Oration 28” New Advent.Web. March, 2011

[5] Bavinck, Herman ,The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh, GB: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 21.

[6] Augustine, “Com. on St. John,” Tr. I. 1., cited in Rolt, C. E. ed. Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology (Berwick, MA: Ibis Press, 2004), 40.

[7] Ibid., 140-141.

[8] See Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Cambridge: 1993).


  1. Jeff wrote:

    "It is impossible to understand existentialism without understanding what has also led to postmodernism. This is not just because existentialism originated out of the same environment as postmodernism, but also because it is within postmodernism that existentialism flourishes today. Technically speaking, Postmodernism is considered a condition or assessment of society. It has followed on the heels of the age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Supposedly, for the last quarter century we have been living in the Postmodernism Period. Yet, if we define postmodernism as a philosophical rubric of thought that denies the possibility of knowing ultimate truth, then the foundations of postmodernism reaches back into the Modern Period was man become increasing skeptical. In this sense, I use the term postmodernism not to identify a period of time, but as an epistemological framework that denies the possibility of man ascertaining absolute truth. Accordingly, postmodernism is fallen man giving up on absolute truth while still holding onto a false notion of personal and individual autonomy when man started denying knowability of absolute truth."

    Keith says:

    Jeff, as I have commented in private conversation with you, your position reminds me of William Lane Craig's argument that our culture is pretty much where it was before the onset of what people are now calling Postmodernism. Consider, for example, this argument by Craig in a 2008 Christianity Today article entitled, "God Is Not Dead Yet":

    "However all this may be, some might think that the resurgence of natural theology in our time is merely so much labor lost. For don't we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Rational arguments for the truth of theism are no longer supposed to work. Some Christians therefore advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it.

    "This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist." (See here: )

    It seems you would agree with Craig's assessment, as I do, except that you prefer to use the term postmodernism as "a philosophical rubric of thought that denies the possibility of knowing ultimate truth" and argue that its roots extend back into the beginning of the Modern Period. In this way, you try to help those in the current cultural climate see that what they call postmodernism is not really new at all. It is what we used to call modernism.

    So, although you and Craig approach the issue from different angles, you seem to agree in your basic assessment of our current condition as a culture and of how that condition came about.

    What do you think? Am I right in my assessment?

  2. By the way, Craig further defends his assessment here:

  3. Keith I agree— things are still the same for the last 250 years. In the late 18th century, after writing his famous book “Critique of Pure Reason” where he denied the possibility of ascertaining absolute truth, Kant wrote a follow up book called “Critique of Practical Wisdom” where he claimed that it is impossible to live consistently without the assumption of absolute truth. That is, although we can’t know absolute truth, we can’t live without it. This is why Van Till claimed that the skeptic must borrow capital from the Christians worldview to live his life. Nothing has changed in the last 250 years—scientist still assume that the universe is orderly, mathematicians still affirm that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and we all still walk through doors, and not walls, to enter buildings.

    I believe your assessment is right. If we define "postmodernism" as a period following the Modern Age, then we have yet to get there. If we define "postmodernism" as an epistemological skepticism of metaphysical realties, then we have never left the Modern Age. Why? Because people operate their lives as they have always operated them.

  4. Well said, brother! I thought I had a pretty good handle on where you were coming from on this, but mentioned the similarity to Craig's perspective to help the readers see that you are definitely not alone in your assessment. No less a prominent Christian philosopher as Craig agrees with you. Now if he could just give up his Arminian theology and his adherence to Middle Knowledge, he would really be on the right track!

    Anyway, I liked your articles very much. I think you did a good job of helping the readers see how our culture got to be where it is and why the appropriate use of confessions is as important as ever for the Church.