When Anthropology Replaces Theology
Is our need for salvation the center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
R.J. Rushdoony, A Word in Season
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Welcome to Episode 28 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about modern Reformed preachers, or, rather, neo-Reformed preachers, or, even more precisely, the multitude of preachers and theologians today who pretend being Reformed but are, at the very best, the same old Pelagian ilk which in history has always, in their teaching, replaced the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the autonomous man. I have already spoken in a previous podcast about the ministry-industrial complex; that conglomerate of denominations, churchian celebrities, preachers, media ministries, seminaries, etc., which is geared towards consuming the billions of dollars in donations which the gullible public of American Christians generously gives away in the hope that these ministries really do something for the Gospel. This week we will be talking about a specific part of the ministry-industrial complex, namely, the Reformed/Calvinistic part, or, to be more precise, the fake Reformed and fake Calvinistic part of it. You see, in the ministry-industrial complex, there are many niches and therefore many soap-boxes for different kinds of donors with different tastes; the only soapbox that is missing is that of Christian Reconstruction and theonomy, for the message of Christian Reconstruction and theonomy calls for a comprehensive change of culture, and that is dangerous to the ministry-industrial complex. The closest to theonomy that the ministry-industrial complex gets is TULIP preachers who spend their whole careers focused on individual salvation and side issues like the mode of baptism and for or against the KJV translation, all mixed with watered-down moralism on sexual or alcoholic issues. Thus, those of the prospective donors who define themselves as Reformed or Calvinistic, listen to those TULIP preachers and say, “Well, they may not give us a comprehensive message, but at least they are saying something Reformed, right?” The problem here is, of course, that TULIP in itself doesn’t mean Reformed, and Reformed is much more than soteriology. I have written about it in an article titled, “TULIP Doesn’t Mean Reformed; City on a Hill Does.” The Reformation, to use the words ascribed to the Strassburg Reformer Martin Bucer, is nothing less than the Christianization of all of life. Anything less than that is not Reformed. And given that many of these celebrities who pass for “Reformed” not only do not preach the Christianization of all of life, but also actively preach against it and against the concept of Christendom, that is, a Christian civilization based on Biblical principles, they are not Reformed at all.
But don’t make the mistake to believe that the error of these fake Calvinist preachers consists in only having a truncated Gospel, or limiting their topics to a few propositions about individual salvation. There is a much more profound error preached from our modern so-called “Reformed” pulpits, an error that is severely misleading their listeners away from the Reformation, and away from a truly Biblical theology and worldview. It is a subtle error, and like all subtle errors it is a dangerous error. It replaces the worship of God with worship of man, while pretending to worship God. And it is an error that unless exposed and dealt with, establishes in the churches humanism dressed in correct, Reformed theological wording – which is the most dangerous kind of humanism.
The best expression of that new kind of humanism came through the words of one of those celebrity preachers who these days pass for “Reformed.” But before you are tempted to focus on that particular celebrity preacher, keep in mind that his words are not just his own, they are representative of the whole specter of supposedly “Reformed” celebrities today; and the sentiment and the presuppositions behind them run deep into the modern churches, even those who pass for “conservative” and even “Reformed,” and are at the foundation of the established practice – individual and social – of the majority of Christians today. That particular preacher expressed his views in the following way:
“The Gospel is very simple and it can be expressed just in a few words. But the Bible is big because our need [that is, the need of man] is big.”
The preacher’s name is John Piper. Again, don’t assume I am picking on Piper. This ideology is not limited to him, it is endemic in the American churches. In all of them, not just the liberal ones. Billy Graham liked to repeat the mantra that he was “just preaching the Gospel,” meaning he was limited to the personal salvation of man. His son, Franklin Graham, repeated the same mantra in an interview 6 or 7 years ago, when asked whether we are supposed to fight the cultural war and Christianize the culture; based, obviously, on the presupposition that the Gospel was small enough to not include the culture and not change it. (That was before he decided to enter the political arena and start shilling for the Republican Party.) John MacArthur repeats the same mantra in almost every other sermon; insisting that the Kingdom of God is limited to the church and therefore the Gospel doesn’t care for what is happening in the culture. Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and others at Westminster West in Escondido are so devoted to their notion of the separation of Law and Gospel, that they even exclude the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 from the Gospel – because it requires obedience, and the Gospel is too small to include personal obedience, let alone cultural obedience. If these supposedly “Reformed,” supposedly “conservative” theologians and preachers have such a teeny-weeny view of the Gospel, we don’t even have to go to the liberal churches and theologians; who needs them when we have such “conservative” ones.
To all of them, the Gospel is something very small, and it can be expressed in six words, or in six minutes, or in one sentence, etc. The Gospel, yes, the kerygma of God, the solemn declaration of the Creator and King, the marching orders by which He restores the Kingdom and reveals His will to mankind and history, and announces the giving of all authority to His Son, and prophesies the submission of all power and authority to the reign of Jesus Christ, in history, before the Second Coming . . . is a “small thing” for these preachers, and if He had to write about it, it would be an article of one page or something. But boy, when it comes to man and his needs, they are big, I tell ya, and since God wrote the Bible not to reveal Himself – which if He did, as we said, would be only an article of a sentence or a page – but to address the needs of man, the Bible had to be so big. Because man is big, and his needs are big. Not like the small thing that is the Gospel.
I have dealt with the issue of the nature of the Gospel before, in a sermon titled “How Big Is the Gospel?” In it, I have shown that contrary to their view of the Gospel, the Gospel is all-encompassing; nothing remains outside its scope. Paul’s description of the Gospel in 1 Cor. 15 starts with the fact of individual redemption and salvation, but it doesn’t end there; the story and the description of the Gospel continues until all things are put in subjection to Christ, and all things means all things, in history and on earth. Man is the small thing, and his needs are really small compared to the Gospel; the Gospel goes way beyond the personal salvation of man, and the Bible is big because the Gospel, and the God behind that Gospel, are enormous.
This ideology of the modern preachers passes for Reformed but in reality, it misses an important characteristic of the Reformation. A number of modern preachers, when asked to define the Reformed doctrines, resort to the notion of “grace.” The Reformation, according to MacArthur, for example, was about the “doctrines of grace.” All the others agree. It is to be expected, of course, that if the Gospel is small, but man and his needs are so big, the focus of the modern churches would be on that characteristic of the Gospel which mostly suits man and his needs: grace. Grace, of course, is an important part of the Gospel, and it is an important part of the theology of the Bible, but it is certainly not the central part of it. If grace was the central characteristic of Christian theology, then it would be the underlying principle of all of God’s dealings with man and with His creation. But we know from the Bible that God’s grace is limited; He doesn’t scatter it promiscuously to all, everywhere. It is granted to some people; to others, it is not. For God to decide to limit His grace, there must be a more important factor in God’s being and God’s plan, one that defines grace and decides how and when God will bestow it. And it is this more ultimate and more important factor that should be the center of our Christian theology – and therefore, of our practice as well.
That more ultimate and more important factor is the Sovereignty of God. Grace only serves man. The Sovereignty of God serves God and His plan – sometimes in accordance with man’s needs, sometimes against man’s needs. When God stood face to face with Pharaoh in the person of Moses, He didn’t declare His grace to Pharaoh personally; he declared His Sovereignty. Pharaoh was to taste nothing of God’s grace; from the moment of Moses’s first words after his return, to the moment the waters of the Red Sea closed above Pharaoh’s head, it was a constant downhill of one judgment after another on Pharaoh and his realm. To say that the central doctrine of Christianity is the grace of God is to make the testimony of the Bible void – for there are scores of people in the Bible who met God face to face, like Pharaoh, and all they learned was judgment. But both unbelievers and believers learned of one thing: God is Sovereign. To some, He is Sovereign to life and grace; to others, to judgment and death. That was the central message of the Reformation: Not the TULIP, which was formulated much later, but the concept that God is Sovereign and He has in His hand the destinies of men. Martin Luther’s book, Bondage of the Will, which he himself considered among his most important works, was in defense of the Sovereignty of God, and every single Reformer after him continued in the same vein. And that Sovereignty was not only in salvation, as many modern preachers claim, it was in everything: from individual salvation to the way the culture and its institutions should operate.
When man and man’s needs are placed at the center of Christian preaching and teaching, and when God’s grace is made the central doctrine of Christianity, God is then reduced to a servant of man and his needs. The God of the modern fake “Reformed” theologians is no bigger than a fairy which hovers over man, eager to give him whatever he needs, salvation, justification, sanctification, everything to save his precious little hide from hell. And that’s where the purpose of God ends for these modern theologians, and that’s where their preaching stops, accordingly. When they say that they are “only preaching the Gospel,” the real meaning behind these words is, “we are only preaching a God whose main purpose is to serve man.” Not to establish the Kingdom He promised. Not to save the world, according to John 3:16-17. Not to transform the earth to mirror the order He has in heaven, according to the Lord’s Prayer. Not to make all the nations obey everything He has commanded, because He is given all authority in heaven and on earth. All of these things concern God, not man, and man has no need for any of them. He needs his salvation; he needs to save his hide from the eternal fire. And that’s what God is there to give him, and that’s all that the Bible was written for. God is the servant, man is the one who is served.
When man and his needs are placed at the center, then the very meaning and essence of teaching and doctrine – from the pulpits and in the seminaries – will change. Theology won’t be the central discipline anymore; it will be replaced by anthropology: a study of man as the ultimate goal and purpose of God’s actions, the real hero of the Bible and its message. Man and his needs will be examined in detail; after all, they are what the Bible is all about. Man can still be acknowledged to be a sinner – for this is the theologically correct language of the Reformation. But since the Gospel is now made to serve that sinner’s needs – instead of making the sinner serve the Gospel and the King of the Gospel – that sinner will be thoroughly examined so that his needs are known in detail, and thus read into the Bible. The Bible itself will be re-interpreted from the perspective of the needs of man, not of the character of God or the Sovereignty of God. Theologians who hold to such humanistic view of the Bible as John Piper and other supposedly “Reformed” celebrities, will make it the goal of their preaching to discover newer and newer elements and characteristics of man’s being and nature. Whether these characteristics are real or imaginary won’t be of any consequence: what will matter is to find man in the Bible as the purpose of the Bible, to make anthropology the queen of sciences, and to focus all knowledge on man.
The problem comes, however, in the fact that the Bible speaks very little about the nature of man. As I have pointed before in a sermon titled, “What Is Man?”, the Bible is silent about the metaphysical nature of man. Man is not defined as a static being in the Bible, he is not defined as what he is. He is only defined dynamically, as what he is created and commanded to do. He is made in God’s image, but we don’t know the metaphysical nature of that image; we simply can’t, God is beyond out comprehension as a Being, we only know Him from His works. But this image is explained to us dynamically in Genesis 1: “and let them have dominion.” We can’t find anything in the Bible on man’s static nature; we can’t find anything on his needs. We only find man defined in terms of his service to God, under the Covenant of God. You want to know the definition of man? Created to serve God by exercising godly dominion over the earth. No other definition is available.
Thus, for these theologians and preachers to find man and his need in the Bible, they have to make it up. They have to conjure man’s nature out of their own imagination, and ascribe to man imaginary and mystical properties to make him that gigantic important being for whom the big Bible was written. His psychology, his will, his intellect, his feelings and emotions, his perceptions, his well-being and welfare, his deep desires, moral qualities, even his insecurity and doubts and imperfections, all need to be studied thoroughly and combined into a science more important than theology. After all, this is what the Bible is all about, right? Sermons need to reflect this extended study of man and his needs, seminary courses need to focus on man and his needs, evangelism needs to address man and his needs . . . in everything, eventually, man and his needs must become the central point. Theology, then, or the Gospel of the Kingdom, or anything that is not directly concerned with man and his needs, must take the back seat. Man and his needs are what matters.
If you are tempted to conclude that I am exaggerating, look at the results. The results today are obvious. A recent study on the theological convictions of church members in the US showed that the vast majority of them either have no clear theological convictions, or where they have them, these convictions are rather heterodox and even heretical. Another study showed that, among churchgoers again, a majority believes there is nothing wrong with sodomite marriage. Another study some time ago showed that in the South, in the very Bible Belt of the nation, a significant number of women who go to church have had at least one abortion, and see no problem with that. It is easy to blame the unbelieving world and liberal theology and the seeker-sensitive church and the younger generation, and many Reformed preachers and seminary professors have indulged in such criticism. The problem is, they are just as much to blame for it as everyone else; for it is from their pulpits that that truncated, humanistic Gospel focused on man and his needs comes from. Man and his needs are made the center, God is made subservient to man’s need, then why wouldn’t all of man’s needs be considered, whether real or imaginary. (And who says which are real and which imaginary?) If two men feel the need to be married, God wouldn’t have anything against it, would He? If a mother doesn’t need a child now, she is justified to get rid of it, right?
Christian literature that comes out of these supposedly Reformed circles is no better, even when it is filled with theologically correct language. Evangelism in the modern church is less based on the commandments of God and more structured along the lines of modern psychology and sales techniques. Think of the altar calls in so many churches whose purpose is to psychologically manipulate the attendees in the service to come forward; all of modern evangelism utilizes similar manipulation techniques. If you think such manipulation is limited certain denominations – like the Southern Baptists, for example – I will reply that I have seen Presbyterian missionaries using similar techniques on the mission field. Man and his need is placed at the center, evangelism then addresses mostly man and his need, and very little Christ and His Kingdom. We have today thousands of books coming from our seminaries and theologians that cover some obscure topics of personal spiritual betterment or sanctification; books on psychology and counseling and the sacraments and the emotional needs of Christians and on personal relationships etc., etc., etc. But we have almost nothing on building and expanding the Kingdom of God in history, on earth. Outside the books of the Christian Reconstructionists, the overall motive for the majority of authors is what man can get away from the glorious salvation God has given him.
It should be obvious that the Prosperity Gospel is also a product of this view. Yes, yes, I know, many modern preachers have denounced the Prosperity Gospel . . . but is their own gospel any different in essence, or is it only different in the details? If John Macarthur insists that the Gospel is only the good news of salvation, and Joel Osteen says that it is of salvation and prosperity, there is no essential difference between the two; both declare that the Gospel is about the needs of man. The only difference is that one defines the needs of man narrowly, as only the spiritual need of salvation, the other more broadly. (As a side note, Osteen has it on Macarthur, because the Bible does speak on material prosperity as a legitimate need of man.) Macarthur and others like him may protest loudly against the Prosperity preachers but the truth is, they are guilty of the same, by limiting their own view of the Gospel to man’s salvation and by making God subservient to man. One only follows from the other.
But the influence of this humanistic gospel goes even further, into our modern social and political ideologies and practices as well. We are used to hear both conservative politicians and church leaders say that America has abandoned God. Some even go as far as calling for us to restore God in American politics and American civil government. This was a Christian nation; it is not anymore, at least by what we see in our legislation and our courts today – but also in our economic endeavors, and in our government regulations, and in our welfare, and foreign aid, etc., etc. We do not serve God as a nation. But let’s be honest, this trend didn’t start with the offices of our politicians, it started with the pulpits in our churches and our seminaries, where this humanistic, truncated gospel of the Needs of Man was substituted for the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. In a previous episode, I showed how the emasculation of man in Hollywood movies didn’t start with Hollywood, it started with our churches. In the same way, this apostasy in politics serving man rather than God didn’t start with the politicians; it started with our churches. Obviously, if the main point of the Bible is the need of man – whether for salvation, or justification, or sanctification, or anything else – then there is no problem if the main point of politics and government is not the Kingdom of God but the needs and the desires of man. Blame the church. And no, I am not speaking of the liberal churches. I am speaking of the good old Reformed conservative churches. They know better, and they bear greater responsibility.
But contrary to this “only the gospel” mentality, contrary to this truncated gospel of the needs of man, Jesus declares how we should view ourselves in relation to Christ and His Gospel of the Kingdom, in Luke 17:7-10: “Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? “But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? “He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”
As scandalous as it sounds in our humanistic age, man, in relation to the Gospel, is like that slave: his needs are not taken in account, except at the end, after he has served his Master. Even after we have returned from a long and tiresome day of work, we still have obligations to Him. He has won a kingdom to Himself, we are His property. He doesn’t serve us, we serve Him. We exist for the greater purpose of the Kingdom of God, and this Kingdom far exceeds our need to save our precious souls from hell. We have the obligation to bring His glory and reign to every aspect of our lives and our culture; whether this will serve our real or imaginary needs is of no consequence. We may eat and drink afterward. Preachers and teachers who teach that we and our salvation are the focus of Christ’s Gospel are preaching another gospel, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And unless we reject heir preaching, we will see our culture sinking deeper and deeper into ignorance, darkness, and rebellion against God. Ideas have consequences.
The book I will assign for reading today is R.J. Rushdoony’s A Word in Season, a 7-volume set. While you may know Rushdoony as a heavy-duty theologian, this set will surprise you. It is actually devotional literature. But these are not self-serving, introspective devotions, like the theology of he modern fake “Reformed” preachers, where the “devotion” is to nothing else but to the individual salvation of the person. These are true devotions to God offered by a man who sees himself as merely a servant, and Christ as all in all, worthy of ultimate glory and personal loyalty. Read these books, and teach your kids from them.
And keep our mission in Bulgaria in your prayers, and also in your considerations for donations and support. There lots of secular humanism to be fought in Eastern Europe, and we have been making progress. With your help, we will continue. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.