Over the years, I have seen many different “-isms” crop up in Christian circles. Some of them have existed for centuries, while others are innovations which have been created in the past 150 years. Most of them serve as a defense mechanism against Christian spirituality. I will focus on two here.
The first “ism” is Rationalism. Rationalism is not all that new, but it has become extremely influential. It permeates what is known as “Lordship Salvation”, but can also be found in other divisions of Christianity. Basically, the idea is to focus on those parts of Scripture which tell me to do something. If that is not presented, then the people of Scripture are turned into moral examples to be emulated and followed. All of this effort is called “sanctification”.
Theologians of this order interpret the Bible literalistically rather than literally. That means, they take the parts of Scripture which are not commands or demands and make them into laws, commands or demands. This effectively erases the need for God as the individual becomes self-sanctifier. An example of this is when Jesus is talking with the rich young ruler.
When Jesus speaks with this man, He is asked what one must do to inherit eternal life. Based on the question (in economic terms), Christ answers with the need to fulfill the law as payment. When the self-deceived young man answers that “I have kept all of these from my youth”, Christ then tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow me. At this, the man walked away sad.
Was the point of this to say that the Law is the prescription for the disease of death? If I fulfill these commandments, will I “buy” eternal life? That is the literalistic approach. It reducse the intent and expression of Christ’s words to an activity which earns something else.
A literal (if not truly evangelical) approach would interpret Christ’s words differently. Christ is trying to put up a mirror from which the young man would be able to see his sin, which would lead him to repent and ask Christ to save him. Because of his utter blindness, Christ amplifies the effect of the law by setting a much higher requirement which was clearly impossible for this young man. Even the disciples, who had actually done some of these things, were troubled because of the effects of the Law.
The Law is not a prescription for salvation (or, for that matter, sanctification), but is a true mirror in which to see one’s hopeless condition. The literalist is more interested in minimizing the effect of law than declaring it in its full wrath. This is precisely the position of the rich young ruler.
Ultimately, the attempt to turn God’s word into a “how-to-book” of Sanctification is an attempt to revive a God who is not seen as “working” today. Rather than look to the right preaching of the Scripture (using the Law and Gospel, declaring Justification through Christ alone, etc.), and the sacraments as the source of God’s living action in this world, Rationalist attempt to “revive” God by reducing the Word to do’s and don’t which do little more than bind the conscience.
May God damn this theology.