The Philosophy of the Reformation and Its Historical Impact, by John Immel – Part 1
Taken from John Immel’s first session at the 2012 Conference on Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny
Published with permission
~ Edited by Andy Young
I was listening to the radio and a song by one of our modern philosophers came on.
“There’s something wrong with the world today.
I don’t know what it is.
Something is wrong with our eyes.
We’re seeing things in a different way.
And God knows it ain’t His.
It sure ain’t no surprise.”
This is from a song by Aerosmith, “Living on the Edge.” The song’s refrain says over and over that we can’t help from falling.
It is true: there is something world with the world today. But I contend that it is not inevitable that we fall.
Throughout my life I have been involved in various flavors of Christianity, and I continually found myself running up against the same interaction over and over and over. And, of course, for the longest time the easy criticism was, “It’s you. You’re the problem.” There are a lot of doctrines within Christianity that affirm that – yeah, it’s probably you. If there is a problem, you are probably the problem.
But then I began to realize that the same problem exists whether I’m involved in the social dynamic or not.
How is that possible? How is it possible that I can go from denomination to denomination to denomination – from Word of Faith to Charismatic to Baptist to Methodist – and it didn’t matter?
After much thinking I arrived at what I believe is the root of all failed human actions.
The Gospel According to John Immel, chapter 3:1-3
- All people act logically from their assumptions.
- It does not matter how inconsistent the ideas or insane the rationale. They will act until that logic is fulfilled.
- Therefore, when you see masses of people taking the same destructive actions, if you find the assumptions, you will find the cause.
The words “logic” or “logically” in this context refers to the consistent progression of a given set of ideas. That does not mean the ideas are logical in the sense that it is accurate thinking. I am talking about how Idea “A” through Idea “Z” go together to create an entire perspective. What I realized was that when the same people take the same action, they will produce the same outcome.
Let me break this down by section.
Verse 1 says: assumptions + logic = action.
Verse 2 says: faulty logic or erroneous rationalizations = ideas that flow from one to the next to the next.
Verse 3 concludes: mass action + destructive outcomes = common premise.
Something is wrong with the world today, but I submit that the error is imbedded in common faulty root assumptions. When I surveyed history and I saw men taking the exact same steps, coming to the exact same conclusions generation after generation, millennia after millennia, I realized they all held similar root assumption about man and about life.
Typically, when I start talking like this is people say something like: “Well, people just need Jesus.” What they mean to say is that ideas are irrelevant unless the mystical solution of “Jesus” is applied to the problem. But that can’t be right because other people might say: “Well, people just need Buddha,” and still others might say, “Well, if Islam ruled the world, all the problems would go away.”
And here is why “people just need Jesus,” is no answer to the world’s problems: bromides are not solutions. Bromides never address the forces driving the problem.
The problem with faith is people tend to take their own faith very personally and very seriously . . . and very uncritically. They tend to assume that faith equals a license to subjectivity; that they are entitled to believe whatever they happen to believe just because they believe it.
So the challenge that I have forever run up against is that when I start talking about digging into the roots of our assumptions, the reaction is, “You know what? That’s complicated. That requires me to think. And I don’t really care to do that too terribly much.”
I am sympathetic on many levels to that frustration. We would like to say to ourselves, “The declaration of God’s love is so simple. Why on earth does this have to be complicated?” I understand that frustration. It seems that if something is so simple, the process of believing should be left to that simplicity. But here is the challenge – I contend that theological bumper stickers are not simple because thinking is at no point simple.
Let us use the following metaphor to try to illustrate this complexity. Throwing a ball seems like a very rudimentary process. You let it go. It goes from point “A” to point “B”. Yet no matter how many times you throw a ball from point A to point B, it consistently drops to the earth. Now consider the question, why does the ball always hit the ground? Some very smart people put together the physics of throwing a ball.
D = (Vo ˟ sinθ ˟ t) + (½A ˟ t2) + h
D = distance
Vo = initial velocity
θ = initial arc angle
t = time
A = acceleration
h = initial height
Since I am no math wizard, I could not begin to explain to you the details of this equation. But that’s okay. I don’t have to. What I want you to understand is that a child throwing a football on the beach is engaging in the above formula. This formula details the level of complexity that is involved in throwing a ball from point “A” to point “B” even though a child can perform the action.
Now back to the issue at hand: thinking about what we believe and why.
Thinking is hard because thinking is also complex. It is just as complex as, if not more so, than throwing a ball because thinking is the mechanics of human action. This is where we get our energy to act in life. From the time when we are old enough to recognize our own consciousness to start motivating ourselves through life, the thing that dominates us every waking moment of our lives are the thoughts that we specifically put into action.
Here is the beauty of my metaphor – ideas are just as calculable as the mechanics in throwing the ball.
People want simplicity but it is in the details that we find the root problems. You may read articles on discernment blogs discussing the issue of “New Calvinism” or a resurgence of Calvinism and Reformed theology. Most people will conclude that denouncing the doctrines of those movements is grand conspiracy. The real solution is if a few “misled” souls would just get on the right path then all will be well with the church.
But the reality is conspiracy as an explanation does not satisfy the discussion of New Calvinism any more than liberation theology describes why America is treading down the path of Marxism, or why Marxism has dominated the whole of the western world, or why Islam is on the rise throughout the globe.
People prefer conspiracies. “Christians” would rather hear people say it is the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers or some dastardly mastermind twirling his mustache in a hideaway, spending lots of money to compel people to do things and take mass action. People prefer conspiracy and world masterminds because that is easy. Conspiracies are easy. Thinking is hard.
I contend that the issue driving the world towards the edge is ideas, and ideas are hard. Ideas demand that individuals invest a stunning amount of personal discipline. You must bring your “A” game every minute of every day to be about ideas.
Consider once again the metaphor of throwing a ball. There is a specific problem with that metaphor. It is the issue of gravity. When you throw a ball, of course, the ball at the end of its trajectory hits the ground. It is the existence of gravity within that equation which leads people to believe that the ball must hit the ground every time it is thrown. Because of that gravity, my metaphor tends to break down because in the grand scheme of ideas, I am overtly saying that we can control what we think. If we can understand the progression and the mechanics of our thinking, then we can arrive at a different outcome. But historically, the inevitability of the “gravity” of human action is the observation that man tends down the path of his own self-destruction over and over and over. It is this very observation which has been used as a case in point to say that man is in effect “depraved.”
So how do I remedy the weakness of my metaphor? How do I integrate the immutability of “gravity” with the power of choice and the ability of man to set his own course?
The answer is, change the beginning assumption.
The formula for throwing a ball assumes that you are in an environment affected by gravity. The formula for throwing a ball assumes that your desired outcome is to propel the ball from point “A” to point “B.” Yet with the right amount of velocity, acceleration, and arc, it would be possible to put a ball into orbit or escape gravity altogether. Therein lies the consistency with the metaphor.
I contend that when you challenge the assumptions that have dominated the whole of the western world, you can arrive at a new set of assumptions, and those assumptions can defy the “gravity” that has driven men down to self-destruction.
So now let’s discuss Calvinism, New Calvinism, and Reformation theology. The question is: why within this emergent movement do we see such consistent actions, such consistent outcomes, such consistent stories of oppression and domination and coercion? Why, from one congregation to the next, do you see the exact same outcomes?
To answer these questions, we must first find the assumptions, and that means we are going to have to take on ideas. It takes enormous effort to fully evaluate the content of ideas. This is the process of education and expertise. One must be specifically aware of one’s own thoughts. This is intentional consciousness. From the time, you are old enough to say, “I want a cookie,” to the day you read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” and every day after and in between, when you crack open a book and you read an equation and you determine to understand what the variables within that equation mean . . . all of these are examples of intentional consciousness.
It takes enormous discipline to order one’s thinking, to evaluate the progression from “A” to “Z.” It takes enormous effort to arrive at real logic, or non-contradictory thinking. Real reason is the determination to understand the over-arching mechanics of your own individual consciousness. By order I mean non-contradictory logic. It is what happens when you can follow the progression of thought from “A” to “B” to “C” to “D,” and you do not find any inconsistencies in that progression. Such a process takes enormous self-definition, that is, an absolute trust in one’s own rational faculties. And this requires self-esteem.
Bookmark the concept self-esteem.
My root assumption is that man is rationally competent. This assumption defies almost all historic Christian doctrine. Now the term “self-esteem” in American culture has been so utterly corrupted that I hesitate to use it, but it still captures what I’m after; an identification of the effectiveness of self. But you cannot get to self-esteem by someone holding your hand, patting you on the back, and telling you that you are okay. You can only get to self-esteem by doing the work, overcoming challenges, and succeeding.
The definition of human consciousness and self-esteem comes from the ability to successfully prevail over challenges. By contrast “New Calvinism” or Reformed theology is designed to undermine this ability at the root. It is designed to undermine man at his most fundamental level. It is designed to eradicate his specific ethical egoistic self. Most people don’t understand that every argument you encounter in Calvinist doctrinal debate, whether it is the distinction between sanctification and justification, or whether it is your moral right to keep the substance of what you have, are all moral arguments designed to de-legitimize your self-esteem. The doctrines fueling the argument are designed to condemn you at your root: to prevent you from having the right to your own self and your moral responsibility for the sum and substance of your own life.
What I am describing is the study of philosophy. In the western world since Immanuel Kant, philosophy has been utterly corrupted, and thus most people have a negative impression of philosophy. And Christians are particularly fond of flipping the page over to Paul’s consternation with what he called “vain philosophies” in order to de-legitimize discussing ideas. But regardless of how you feel, since philosophies exist, you need figure out how to deal with “vain philosophies.” So despite Paul’s anxiety over “vain” philosophies, it follows that understanding good philosophies is important.
Here’s the reality: the ideas we encounter are no accident, and the outcomes are not happenstance. The source of all world evil can be found in evil ideas, or evil philosophies. The outcomes of those ideas have been displayed over and over and over, so we know they are evil. Christians are then confronted with this reality: if the world remains evil then the solutions we have been offering do not work. So one more sermon, one more frothing-at-the-mouth preacher, one more guy pounding his ESV will not fix the problem.
Instead we must have the courage to think, or maybe better said: rethink. Unless people are willing to turn on their minds and challenge their deepest-held beliefs, finding the solution is impossible. Nothing will change. It won’t matter how much we dissect sanctification and justification or the centrality of the cross. It won’t matter how many scriptures we stack up in service to pet doctrines. It won’t matter how much we rail against misplaced church government (Is it presbytery? Is it democracy? Is it papacy? et al). That has already been done over and over and over, council after council, synod after synod, inter-Nicene fight after inter-Nicene fight. For the first time in history, men must rethink the historical fight from its roots.
Mystic despots have always ruled over the masses with portents and disasters for those who dared to live life beyond the mediocre. Tyrants can only succeed when men refuse to think. Autocrats rely on being able to compel outcomes because no one opposes their arguments. This is the challenge that I have as a man who is passionate about thinking: to inspire people to engage in understanding and scrutinizing the complex ideas that drive tyranny.
So here’s my challenge: do not be seduced into believing that righteousness is retreat from the world. Do not be seduced into believing that spirituality is defined by weakness and that timid caution for fear of committing potential error is a reason to be quiet. Do not be intimidated by vague, hazy threats of failure. Do not let yourself believe that faith is a license to irrationality. Do not mistake the simple nature of God’s love as a justification for simple-mindedness. Do not deceive yourself with the polite notion that you are above the fray, that your right to believe is sufficient to the cause of righteousness. There is no more stunning conceit. Do not pretend that your unwillingness to argue is the validation of truth.
Know this: virtue in a vacuum is like the proverbial sound in the forest – irrelevant without a witness. Character is no private deed. To retreat is nothing more than a man closing his eyes and shutting his mouth to injustice. Virtues are not estimates to be wafted gently against evil. Virtues are not to be withheld from view in the name of grace. Virtues are not to be politely swallowed in humble realization that we are all just sinners anyway. Love is not a moral blank check against the endless tide of indulgent action. Love is not blind to the cause and effect of reality. Love is not indifference to plunder and injustice and servitude.
The time is now, you men of private virtue, to emerge from your fortress of solitude and demonstrate that you are worthy of a life that bears your name. The time is now, you men of private virtue, to answer Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and all the nihilists that insist we are living on the edge and we cannot help but fall. It is time for you men of private virtue to take up the cause of human existence and think.
~ John Immel