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Vol. IX • 1987

The Relevance of Theology
Edward Coleson

It has been so long since we have thought theologically, except in a haphazard and scattered fashion, that it is little wonder that the Liberation Theologians have gone astray in their attempt to deal with the age-old problems of mankind. Long ago theology was "the Queen of the sciences," the starting point for any serious investigation in every field of learning. Now it is just another subject, a specialized area that is ingrown and makes little effort to answer all those difficult questions that plague the human family today. The aged Queen has abdicated.

When students from the Third World come to study at seminaries in the United States, they find little here to help them when they go back to their own country, if they ever return home. As a Korean educator, Bong Rio Ro,1 has informed us

Are evangelicals in danger of ending up with a Bible which is inerrant but mostly irrelevant? Now it is easy for comfortable Americans to ignore these problems, because they are far away. We have problems too, but it isn't too hard to avoid much contact with them.

If one reads church history, he will find that Christians have often have a large part in attempts to remedy the ills of society, but this tradition has been almost forgotten today. We now think cures are the function of government, but bureaucrats have not been very successful in ministering to human need. Carl F.h. Henry warned us shortly after World War II, twenty years before the rise of Liberation Theology, that

It is well to remember that the Social Gospel movement, which had its origin more than a century ago, was concerned about the practical problems of mankind, but they were liberal in their theology and socialist in their politics, so the evangelicals reacted against both by losing interest in reform. The rise of the social gospel was clearly a significant inprovement.3 It was concerned with much the same problems as the Liberation Theologians are today, as Kirk4 and others have recognized.

The New Deal of the Great Depression was a liberal attempt to solve the nation's problems, but this hardly impressed the orthodox in either religion or economics, although the latter were often rather vague as to alternatives. As we approach a trillion-dollar national budget, it should be obvious that we went astray somewhere. In fact, we have not solved our problems; they seem to multiply at least as fast as the increase in government spending. As William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury, has been telling us, it is indeed "a time for truth,"' both for us and our poor neighbors across the world.

Oriental Versus Western Views of History.
If the lessons of the recent past have been largely lost on us, this may be because we Americans tend to lack a sense of history. This is strange because, as Emil Brunner" reminds us, Christianity is one of three historical religions; Judaism was the first and Islam is the third. By contrast, "The mystical religions of the East are indifferent to history . . . Equally indifferent to history are the polytheistic religions of nature." Is Christianity on its way to becoming just another fatalistic Oriental religion, indifferent to its, past and pessimistic about the future?

The Hebrews derived real comfort from the fact that Jehovah was the God of history; He was "in charge." This belief made them unique among the peoples of the East; the typical king on that continent was a god, or at least the high priest of the state religion. "Even Solomon in all his glory" was not Jehovah and the Hebrews were well aware of that fact.

Greek tyrants were not gods either. The Caesars were eventually deified, which made lots of trouble for the early Christians, but the Romans knew better; worship of Caesar was an importation from the Orient to bolster an increasingly authoritarian regime. Indeed, this was the best way ever invented of making a ruler an absolute monarch. According to Herber J. Muller,7

From a practical, pragmatic point of view, the sacred monarchy was a tremendous success: "It kept Egypt going for almost three thousand years a record approached only by China, under its imperial 'Son of Heaven'." But there was no freedom, although perhaps no one missed it. A thoughtful reading of the first six chapters of the Book of Daniel will help us understand how the Babylonian and Egyptian system worked.

It may also help us appreciate one of the great lessons of history. There will he no freedom for very long if there is no possibility of appealing to a higher law, a law that man did not make and cannot change. Yet a century ago Oliver W. Holmes,8 a jurist whom many in the legal profession have called the greatest legal mind of the modern era, was teaching that there is no higher law and only might makes right. He had a tremendous influence during his long career, but his thinking is the same as Pharaoh's or Nebuchadnezzar's or Hitler's or Stalin's in our time.

Richard Hughes,9 a native of Australia who was a news correspondent in Hong Kong, wrote an essay some twenty years ago on "The Orientalization of the West," a trend he feared. He said the adoption of our technology and baseball by Japan represented no change of heart. In the meantime they were doing better exporting Eastern religions than we were doing in our attempt to convert them to Christianity. I share his concern. It is ridiculous to assume that we can lose the historical basis of our civilization and still retain our freedom.

The reader may be thinking that most of us in the United States do believe in God and hence there is little reason for concern. The strange thing is that we Americans do profess to be believers, but few can see how this makes any practical difference. A survey done shortly after World War II10 and recent opinion polls tell the same story; we make a great profession of piety but fail to see how our belief in God makes any difference whatever in the running of our government, our economy, or society in general. In addition our belief in God makes hardly any difference in our personal lives.

We need to remember what Daniel told his monarch… the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men" (Dan. 4:25). We have unthinkingly accepted the democratic dogma that "we the people" or more correctly, the group that can exert the most pressure can make any law we want to. This is heresy and no better than the political theory of the Oriental despots. Alexis de Tocqueville11 one hundred fifty years ago expressed concern over what he called "the omnipotence of the majority." Although our nation was only a half century old when he visited the United States, he believed there had been a significant deterioration in the quality of our leadership due to the necessity of placating the masses.

Obviously, we needed an independent voice, an Old Testament prophet, to bear witness to the truth. The Church might have performed that function, but it was a captive of the omnipotent majority too. The problem, which has grown greatly over the years, is still with us. But, as E.L Allen12 has warned in recent years,… the mass-movement and the tyrant call for each other." Our beliefs do matter.

Perhaps an example may illustrate how closely sound thinking and correct practice are related. When commerce revived with the Age of Discovery, before and after 1492, the nations of Europe all adopted an economic philosophy called mercantilism. This approach should not be hard for us to understand, since it is the dominant system in today's world. A famous quotation from British historian Henry Thomas Buckle13 describes well the French mercantilism of two or three hundred years ago:

What Buckle said about France would apply as well to Spain and, to a lesser extent, to England whose government was too weak to do as badly as the neighbors. The incredible thing is that this system, if it maybe called that, was intended to regulate the nation doing it into prosperity, but at the expense of the neighbors and even their own colonies. They believed they could enrich themselves by keeping goods and services scarce and expensive Since there were assorted powerful pressure groups tugging at the government from all directions, the result was a sort of economic "crazy quilt" ann needless frustration, poverty and even starvation.

The same system has produced the same results today. Unfortunately, the failings of our present mercantilism are blamed on free enterprise, so "reforms" often take the form of more regulations. This only makes a bad matter worse. The solution of the problem should be obvious, but it seems not to have been to most people. Sad to say, the Liberation Theologians are trying to correct the situation through Communism, which involves total control of the economy. They (and we) need to learn once again to check our national and international policies from a moral perspective. Some plain common sense would help too.

We once thought that Adam Smith had resolved the apparent conflict between economics and ethics He did make a genuine contribution with his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, and the book is still worth reading if anyone would do it. Smith has long been the favorite whipping boy of the liberals, woe accuse him of saying all sorts of things ne never said. For instance, an American historian14 woo ought to know better has told us, . Adam Smith, optimistically holding to fixed natural economic laws, did not realize that sin would promote greed… I . Andrew Kirk1 disposes of Adam Smith very briefly and with little understanding too. In view of Kirk's great interest in Karl Marx, we should demand equal time for Adam Smith The notion that the Capitalists invented greed is ridiculous; there have always been greedy people in every age and every civilization. As sociologist Max Weber11' told us eighty years ago:  

Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with Capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.

Indeed, medieval mercantilism is an excellent example of irrational greed, and did much to impoverish Europe centuries before Adam Smith was born. While it was once thought that Smith's work was the pioneer protest against the destructive system, we now know that Spanish scholars warned their government that its mercantilism would lead to disaster, as early as the sixteenth century James A. Michener tells us that Caries (Charles VI never understood what happened; he blamed those woo had violated his mercantilist regulation with ruining the country. But, as Michener'7 says, "Smugglers had not stolen Spain into poverty; Carlos himself had done his job." In spite of sound economic advice which could have been available to the government, Carlos and his son bankrupted their vast empire through mercantilism until when they were through...... the once-great kingdom was finished, and over the sprawling empire lay the seal of death." It seems tragic with all the wisdom we could derive from those forgotten Spanish scholars, Adam Smith and many other sound economists, plus the blunders of history, we still persist in making the same mistakes.

Judgment or Revival?
Another aspect of the historic Christian world-view which is quite foreign to present thinking is the concept of God as "the Judge of all the earth" (Gen. 18:25). This doctrine was still a significant factor in national thinking at the time of me Constitutional Convention in 1787, when Colonel Mason18 warned his fellow Americans that God would judge us if we persisted in retaining the institution of slavery. Although he was a Virginia slave holder, like Washington and Jefferson, he was most emphatic in denouncing the evil:

That view persisted beyond the middle of the next century.

In 1857 there was a severe economic crisis in this country which produced what may have been the greatest religious revival in American history. There was no prominent preacher involved; the movement was almost leaderless. It was just a grass-roots spiritual awakening which took the form of noonday prayer meetings during the week. The people of the time believed that the depression was God's judgment on us as a nation. According to Martin Marty,19 this was..... the last revival of religion which was demonstrably linked to the interpretation of temporal events."

If God has abdicated, it is inevitable that the Communists, or some other usurpers, such as Hitler's Nazis, will take over. But if God is still "in charge" and has been trying to warn us through national calamities, it is time that we consider the error of our ways, not just our personal sins but also our disastrous political wrong doing, and return to these principles upon which Western Civilization was founded A revitalized and all inclusive theology should lead the way. If we fail to do this, if we are "joined to our idols," we may find that the handwriting is also on our side of the Iron Curtain: "Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting." (Dan. 6:27).


1 Bong Bin Rho, "Four Reasons for Educating Asian Theologians in Asia," Pulse (Nov. 21, 1984), pp. 4-6.
2 Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, p.10.
3 C. Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American protestantism (1865-1915}.
4 Kirk, op. cit., p.43.
5 William F. Simon, A Time for Truth.
6 Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope (translated ny Harold Knight), p.31-33.
7 Robert F Dewey and James H. Gould (editors), Freedom. its History Nature, and Varieties, pp.14-19.
8 Brendan F. Browned.), Tiw Natural Law Reader pp.117-122.
9 Edward C. McGrawth (ed.), Is American Democracy Exportable? pp. 61-63.
10 Reported in Ladies Home Journal Nov 1948 and Reader's Digest June 1949. See more recent evidence in George Barna's Vital Signs.
11 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 112-122
12 E.L. Allen, From Plato to Nietzsche, p.185.
13 Henry Grady Weaver, The Mainspring of Human Progress, pp. 67-68.
14 Earle E. Carins, Saints and Society p.21.
15 Kirk, op cit, p.178.
16 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic arid the Spirit of Capitalism (translated by Talcott Parsons), p.17.
17 James A. Michener, Iberis, pp. 34, 447 and 514.
18 Garet Garrett, The American Story, p. 87.
19 Martin E. Marty. Righteous Empire: the Protestant Experience in America, p.180.

"The Relevance of Theology"
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