I'm finally getting around to finishing my reading of Harold Bloom's book The American Religion. I'm to the back part of the book, where he devotes about 80 pages to an analysis of the Southern Baptist Convention. In this book, Bloom states that Mormonism and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two best representatives of the "American Religion," which he says is not akin to historic biblical Christianity, but rather is more like ancient Gnosticism. Bloom celebrates this fact. He is a Jew with Gnostic affinities, so he praises this. Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost quotes Bloom in a different context as follows:
The American finds God in herself or himself only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude. In this solitary freedom, the American is liberated both from other selves and from the created world. He comes to recognize that his spirit is itself uncreated. Knowing that he is the equal of God, the American Religionist can then achieve his true desideratum, mystical communion with his friend, the godhead.This quote is simultaneously a description of Gnosticism and the American religion.
For the purpose of this post I want to evaluate Bloom's evaluation of the Southern Baptist Convention in this regard. Let me say at the outset that I am a former Southern Baptist who still has a great affection for my brothers and sisters in that denomination. What Bloom celebrates I deplore, and what Bloom deplores I celebrate. Bloom wrote this book in 1992, just as the conservative resurgence was going strong in the SBC. At that time he feared that the fundamentalists were going to take over the convention and marginalize the moderates who who upheld his gnostic vision of Christianity. His fears have come true, which I think is a good thing. Still, his evaluation of the Southern Baptist Convention up until that point has some wonderful points that apply across the board in modern Christendom.
For Bloom, the hero of the Southern Baptist Convention is E. Y. Mullins, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1899 to 1928 and President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1921-1924. Bloom correctly identifies the Southern Baptist Convention as an anti-creedal group from the start, with no real founding father. While there are some luminaries in SBC history, there is no Calvin or Luther or Wesley. The closest person Bloom can identify with the founding of the SBC is Roger Williams, whom Bloom admits the Southern Baptists would not claim. However, according to Bloom, Mullins became the belated Calvin/Luther/Wesley of the SBC as he gave shape and voice to the beliefs of Southern Baptists.
Just off the top of my head, there are all kinds of things that I could and would argue with Bloom about on this. There is a wonderful tradition that predates Mullins in the SBC with men like James P. Boyce, John L. Dagg, John Broadus, and B. H. Carroll. All were godly men out of the Reformed tradition, many having studied at Princeton. These men were in great agreement with the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Westminster Tradition, excepting their views on the sacraments and, I assume they may have had some quibbles on church government, although I can't point to any literature to document that.
But Mullins can serve as a hero to Bloom because he was one of the main instruments in shaping the SBC into his gnostic image. Tom Nettles, in his book By His Grace and For His Glory, cites Mullins as one of the main influencers in turning the SBC away from its Reformed heritage. Granted, the SBC was probably always a theologically mixed bag, but at least in the early days many of its leaders and seminaries were strongly influenced by the Reformed tradition.
Mullins changed all this. The Reformed tradition places a heavy emphasis on the objective realities of doctrine and the church. Mullins changed all of this to a focus on the subjective spiritual experience of the individual. In his work The Axioms of Religion, Mullins centered the Southern Baptist theology/experience on the "competency of the soul." He says:
Observe then that the idea of the competency of the soul in religion excludes at once all human interference, such as episcopacy, and infant baptism, and every form of religion by proxy. (Bloom, p. 200)In his book The Christian Religion, Mullins says:
That which we know most indubitably are the facts of inner experience (Bloom, p. 204).In modern times, this idea is manifest in evangelism programs which assure the witness that their testimony is indisputable.
Curiously, according to Bloom, Mullins doesn't try to prove this doctrine of "soul competency" from Scripture. Per Bloom:
Mullins shrewdly cites no specific biblical texts as authority for soul competency, since his point is that the doctrine is the whole meaning of Jesus's total stance: in all his attitudes, everything he says, every act he performs (p. 206).His is a wholly experiential view of religion, which is explained very well by William James. Mullins says that William James
"explains the fact of regeneration which are quite in harmony with those of the Pauline epistles" (Bloom, p. 214).However, Bloom notes:
"the harmony is with Mullins and not with Paul. Pragmatic, experiential, and American as he was, Mullins almost involuntarily translated Paul into Jamesian terms. The primacy of feeling is not the dynamic of Paul's work, but it is of James's and of Mullins's."Bloom cites the Reverend John Doe at length as a commentator on Mullins idea of "soul competency."
I only know to think of soul competency in practical terms. To me it means that the individual Christian is unassailable in her interpretation of Scripture and in her own understanding of God's will for her life. It means that when someone says, "This is what the Bible means to me," I cannot tell her she is wrong. I can merely say that her understanding is meaningless for me. Only the preacher's understanding of Scripture is expected to be generally meaningful for the whole community, and it is up to each individual to decide whether the preachers' words are useful or not. Soul competency means to me that anything I understand to bring me closer to God is true and cannot be taken away from me, because my life is unique and there is a way of understanding Scripture which is unique to me. Soul competency means to me that I find truth when I am furthest removed from distractions and contingencies of people and things and authorities- again, when truth takes forms which are unique to me and my understanding of the Bible.I take you back to Bloom's summary of gnosticism and the American religion so that you can see how close Mullins is to gnosticism:
The American finds God in herself or himself only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude. In this solitary freedom, the American is liberated both from other selves and from the created world. He comes to recognize that his spirit is itself uncreated. Knowing that he is the equal of God, the American Religionist can then achieve his true desideratum, mystical communion with his friend, the godhead.In all fairness, I seriously doubt that Mullins believes that the Christian thinks his spirit is uncreated (I've read that statement half a dozen times and still don't understand what Bloom is getting at), nor that he is the equal of God. However, the other aspects of gnosticism are clearly present in Mullins. Gnosticism and Mullins affirm that religion is all about one's "personal relationship" with the deity, that one must rise above the things of this world to enjoy "mystical communion" with God and that his personal experience is unassailable.
It seems to me that Bloom speaks in hyperbole here, but hyperbole usually has some grain of truth in it. The evangelicalism I grew up with was defined almost exclusively in terms of one's personal relationship with Christ. The ultimate expression of devotion is the personal quiet time where one spends time alone with God. This is the litmus test of true spirituality. Jesus walks with me and talks with me, and He tells me I am His own, and when does He do this? - when I come to the garden alone. In modern evangelicalism there are really only two significant beings in the universe - me and Jesus. All of the other things and people of the world are tools that will either pull me toward Jesus or push me away from Him.
You can see this in the Navigator's Wheel illustration. In the wheel there are only two people - Christ and the obedient Christian. Everything else - including the people in the church - are a spoke, a tool to help me know and serve Christ. In all fairness, I'm not really knocking the Navigators all that much here - this is simply one illustration of how to grow and is not meant to be an all encompassing theology of the Christian life. However, we live life by our metaphors and this has become the defining metaphor of the Christian life for many.
My objection here is that Mullins, and modern evangelicals have taken one part of the Christian life and made it the whole of the Christian life. I would not for a minute deny the fact that we have a personal relationship with Jesus, but the personal relationship is only one of many metaphors the Bible uses to describe the Christian life. But, in our individualistic culture, we re-define Christianity in individualistic terms. That which is an important part, becomes the totality, the whole.
Just for kicks, I did a little search on my Logos software on the words "Christ" and "died" and "for." In the vast majority of passages that speak of Christ dying for someone the beneficiaries of His death are referred to in the plural. For example, Ephesians 5:25 says that Christ gave Himself up (He died) for the church (a plurality). In I Corinthians 15:3, Christ died for our sins. My point in this is not to deny the validity of the personal relationship, but simply to point out that the Biblical picture is that our faith is a corporate and communal faith, and the personal aspect of it is only a part of the picture. Its an important part, but it isn't the whole.
Furthermore, in the Mullins/modern evangelical view gives short shrift to doctrine and theology. Doctrine and theology are only valuable in so far as they serve to prop up the personal experience. The same goes for the historical facts of the Scripture. Bloom says that Mullins acknowledges the historical realities of the faith (which would be contra the 18th century liberals of his day) but that these historical realities are only important as the basis for personal experience.
Again, there is much truth here. Doctrine and theology are to "warm the heart" and not merely "inflate the head." Yet to oppose the two creates a false dichotomy. Where doctrine and theology are accompanied by "dead orthodoxy" it is not the fault of the doctrine itself, it is the fault of the one holding to it. But what Mullins has done (and again, so has modern evangelicalism) is to make experience the arbiter of doctrine rather than letting doctrine be the arbiter of experience. As John MacArthur mentioned in one of his books, someone once said to him about a particular matter "I don't care what the Bible says, I've had an experience."
J. Gresham Machen has given the best defense of the doctrinal basis of Christianity in his book Christianity and Liberalism. The liberals he contended with said that Christianity is not a doctrine, it is a life. Machen countered that the Christian life is impossible without the foundation of Christian doctrine. When we believe in Christ, we believe a message about Him. None of us, after the apostles, have ever seen Christ face to face, talked to Him or shaken hands with Him. Our relationship, until we die is mediated through the message of the Bible. When we believed in Jesus we believed a message about Him, we weren't personally introduced to Him in a face to face relationship. Yes, we get the Holy Spirit when we believe, and yes Christianity is a new life, but both come to us through the medium of the message of Scripture.
Sadly, the modern, even conservative evangelical church, has taken the old line liberal motto its forefathers fought against and made it its own. The liberal motto, "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine," is now part and parcel of much evangelicalism.
With this attitude toward doctrine and the historical underpinnings of the faith, I wonder on what grounds Mullins and his heirs would oppose a Bultmannian statement to the effect that "it doesn't matter if Christ was literally raised from the dead, what matters is that He is risen in your heart." Granted, Mullins will say that He believes in the resurrection whereas Bultmann doesn't. But, if personal experience is unassailable, then what grounds are there to argue with Bultmann?
Mullins' anti-doctrinal version of the faith doesn't magnify experience, it removes the very foundation of Christian experience.
Mullins idea of Christianity seems very solipsistic to me. This is Bloom's whole point about gnosticism. It misses the fact that God's plan is much bigger than me. Yes, God loves the Christian with a love that is greater than anything we can imagine, but His vision is so much bigger than my personal spiritual development. Without denigrating the honor of being made in the image of God, I sometimes think that there is a real sense in which I am a spoke in the wheel, not the rim. I am a tool for God to use for His glory and the maturation of the church. My personal relationship with Christ is vital in my life, but even that is a means to a greater end - the glory of God and the maturation of the church. I have always found it interesting that the Bible nowhere measures spiritual maturity the way we tend to measure it. We tend to measure personal spiritual growth in terms of our performance of the spiritual disciplines, or in terms of our sense of closeness to God, or (for the more activistic types) in terms of great feats of spiritual derring do. Biblically, our maturity in Christ seems to be measured more by our interaction in community than our individual devotional practices. Again, individual devotional practices are vital, but only as a means to enable us to interact in community. Individual devotional practices are like practice for a sports team or an athlete - they are vital. But no one awards an athlete a trophy for performing well in practice - they have to perform well in the game. Similarly, our maturity is measured by how we interact with others in community and in the world.
At the writing of this book in 1992, Bloom lamented that the good ol' days of Mullins' style Southern Baptist life were coming to an end with the coming fundamentalist takeover. He has many choice epithets for the fundamentalists who took over and "ruined" the SBC. His favorite is to call them "know nothings." By this he is referring to folks like W. A. Criswell, Paul Pressler, Bailey Smith and others who were architects of the fundamentalist resurgence. He claims that they are all anti intellectuals who trumpet inerrancy while at the same time forsaking the actual reading of the Bible. He contrasts them with Machen, for whom he has a grudging admiration, much like Mencken. While I would concur that these guys are dwarves compared to Machen, the fact is that they are (however imperfectly) men of Biblical conviction who simply wanted to see their beloved denomination return to its Biblical roots. Mullins laid the foundation for the SBC's drift away from Scripture, these folks pulled it back.
Bloom's vision of Christianity is that it should be gnostic. Sadly, his critique of the SBC, pre-takeover, fits with evangelicalism at large. By and large, evangelicalism values the individual over the church, and experience over truth. These things all have more in commmon with ancient gnosticism than Biblical Christianity. I don't think that the SBC has made its way all the way out of gnosticism, but I have some biases that lead me to think that. I am hoping that the Reformed vision of men like Al Mohler, Tom Nettles, Tom Aschol, Ernest Reisinger, Don Whitney and others will one day come to dominate the SBC. At this point the SBC has largely re-affirmed its commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. I am not sure that it has moved completely away from the idea of "soul competency," as defined by Mullins (a thought just occurred to me - what effect would the presence of indwelling sin have on "soul competency" in the eyes of Mullins and his followers?). Maybe it has, I would be interested to hear from any Southern Baptists on that matter. But, I think that a return to its Reformed roots would be the most beneficial thing that could happen to the SBC in bringing it out of its gnostic captivity.