As long as the Christian lives in the “present evil age,” he will struggle to focus his life completely on Christ. Christ Himself referred to the Christian’s struggle in His kingdom parables. Although the fulfillment of the kingdom of God begins with the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, the believer must understand that the righteous and the unrighteous will continue to grow together until Christ consummates His kingdom at His second coming (cf. Mt. 13:24–30,36–43). Until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, the evil one will continue to seduce the minds and hearts of man. Throughout history Satan has especially enticed man to think that his destiny is merely a product of his own environment and that man must assert his autonomy if he expects to survive within that environment. Christians attempt to shun Satan’s enticement, however, and they bow in humility before the sovereign plan of God concerning the creation, realizing that for man to claim autonomy is not only foolish but blasphemous. Moreover, the Christian maintains that the existence of everything, including himself, begins and ends with God.
It would be absurd and naive to assert that our environment fails to influence our thought life. Our thinking is definitely shaped by the thoughts of our parents, by our social and religious traditions and by our formal education. We must be careful, however, not to lay undue stress on our environment as the shaper of our minds. The effects of both environment and heredity are, of course, impossible to discern or to delineate accurately, and therefore, the debate on this subject goes far back in history.
PELEGIAN ERROR PAST AND PRESENT
In the early church the debate engaged the celebrated church father, Augustine, and the pronounced heretic, Pelagius. Pelagius argued that the origin and practice of evil in human society arise from man’s environment—from bad examples in the adult world. Augustine, on the other hand, contended that evil in human society originated with Adam’s first sin and that all of humanity was subsequently tainted by that sin. Clearly, Augustine’s position finds no credibility today among non-Christians, the Pelagians of our time. From the man on the street to the intellectual in the university, modern man continues to believe in and to expound the Pelagian myth that to redeem mankind we must change his environment. If we change man’s environment, they argue, the goodness of man will arise victorious. Almost all theories of education in western civilization are built on this Pelagian theory. This theory provides a safe and yet dangerous avenue for addressing the problems of humanity—safe because it demands that we analyze and change the structures of our environment, yet dangerous because it does not demand that we examine the sinful heart of man. From the viewpoint of Augustine, who accepted Saint Paul’s teaching on sin and its remedy (found in such passages as Rom. 5:12–21), the Pelagian position is like putting a band-aid on a severed artery—man will still die, although he might think that he has stopped or reduced the bleeding. The frightening element in all of this is that many Christians accept both the Pelagian analysis and the Pelagian solution to man’s problems.
Not only does the Pelagian heresy appeal to Christians because it offers a solution to the problem of sin; it also appeals to Christians because it asserts that man is autonomous. The notion of personal autonomy dominates the philosophy of the unbeliever. Because he does not know and fear the Creator, the unbeliever feels that he is a law unto himself. In Renaissance humanism an autonomous view of human existence emerged in which man asserted himself over against the authority of both the church and God. In the modern era, rationalism and empiricism have strengthened the notion of man’s autonomy. The rationalist and empiricist world view assert that nature is a reasonable phenomenon which man can know through his sensory and rational powers without the aid of the external authority—God or the church. In this framework God is no longer necessary for an understanding of the world, since the world is a coherent and rational structure in itself. One must not imagine that this western conception of autonomy leaves no place for structure in society and culture, however. Rather, proponents of this view insist that the structure of civilization must be based upon the exaltation of man and also upon the harmony of the natural world, free from God and from the institutional church. The rationalist and the empiricist stress that if man desires to be truly free in this world, he must be in tune with nature and reason.
CHRIST — OUR STARTING POINT
It is difficult for the Christian to escape the impact of this form of idolatrous thought. Often Christians attempt to understand man’s existence and to solve man’s problems by using tools derived from the natural world (reason, experience, the common good) instead of by using principles which conform to the mind of Christ Jesus.
Everyone knows that non-Christians have attempted to construct a world without God. The critical question is whether Christians will fall prey to non-Christian thinking. The Bible confronts anyone who questions the existence of God, viewing himself as isolated by his environment or as being autonomous (Ps.14). The challenge or question is this: where do we begin our pursuit of knowledge? Or, to put the question more definitely, where does our Creator demand that we begin? Do I begin by worshiping and serving the creature, or do I begin by worshiping and serving the Creator (Rom. 1:25)? Scriptural revelation is clear: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Scripture begins with God; the creation exists because of God, and all persons exist because of God.
As we contemplate this point, we realize that mankind’s first mistake, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden, was to establish themselves as the first source of truth. They believed that the serpent was correct when he told them that they could know, understand, and interpret the creation without the Creator. They also believed that the creature could understand and interpret the world as well as the Creator. They thought that the starting point of truth lay within themselves. But a serious problem arose: once Adam and Eve believed that they could understand and interpret the world without God, they became isolated, running from the truth of God’s own revealed interpretation of His creation. Realizing their sin, they felt shame and fled. They came to rely on themselves as the reference point of truth: they sought autonomy.
We find the non-Christian always doing this, but the person who lives in faith-union with Christ avoids this pitfall. For in the fullness of time God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who proclaimed the paradoxical truth that the only way to personal freedom is by the complete denial of self (cf. Lk. 9:23–27). Thus, Paul states that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him (d. Gal. 2:20). The only basis of truth concerning the Creator and all of His creation is Christ “for from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36 NIV)·
The mind and heart of the believer must rest, therefore, in Christ; that is God’s eternal plan. From the beginning the focus of the redemptive plan of the Godhead has been the exaltation and glorification of the second person of the Trinity, Christ Jesus, for all things, were created through Him and by Him: Without Him nothing was made that has been made (Jn. 1:3 NIV)· The creation is the handiwork of Christ, and one must stand in the palm of His hand if one is to interpret His creation correctly. For example, it is not entirely accurate to base the assertion that two plus two equals four solely upon laws within the creation order. Although it would be absurd to deny the existence of natural laws and the truth of mathematical propositions, nevertheless, it would be equally absurd to maintain that two plus two equals four without Christ as the Creator of all things. For nothing, including mathematical propositions, exists outside of Christ. As the apostle Paul writes: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16, 17 NIV).
Unless a person’s knowledge begins with Christ, his understanding remains shallow. The picture he constructs is only partial, and therefore, it is clouded and deceptive. This thought leads us directly to another point concerning our knowledge: not only does true knowledge begin with Christ, it also ends with Christ. Not only is Christ the Creator of all things; He also transforms the universe and His people into a new creation. When the transformation is complete “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea … will sing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:13 NIV). Remember that it isChrist Himself who proclaims from the throne that He is “the Alpha and the Omega—the First and the Last—who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8, 17 NIV). Beyond a doubt, Christ is the beginning and the summation of all things.
Though God created all things and powerfully governs His creation, men constantly worship objects of creation rather than Christ. Although God is the creator of stones and trees, men worship images of God made of wood and stone. Similarly, though God is the creator of laws within the creation order, men often look upon those laws as the ultimate source of truth. Again, though God is the creator of the rational faculty of man, some men revere reason or logic as the ultimate source of truth. To make any part of creation the ultimate source of truth is idolatry, whether the object of veneration is wood or stone or whether it is reason or logic. The Christian does not bow before any object within the creation: instead the believer bows only to His Creator.
CHRIST — THE SOURCE OF TRUTH
My discussion thus far reflects Saint John’s view of truth. At this point I am not concerned with meanings of truth such as the correctness of perception or the validity of statements; nor am I concerned with personality traits such as sincerity, honesty or reliability. Rather, I want to focus on the truth as it comes to perfect and eternal expression in the person of Christ. This foundation, this source of truth is the Son of God. This is John’s testimony: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:14, 17 NIV). Jesus Himself said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6 NIV), and before Pilate Jesus said, “…in fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
In his confusion Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38a NIV) for he could not fathom the depth of Jesus’ statement. For Pilate, truth was a concept discussed by the philosophers. It had nothing to do with a person in whom all things hold together. Indeed, Absolute Truth was confronting Pilate face to face, but he was blind to it! The danger that snared Pilate can snare the Christian as well. Like Pilate the believer is tempted to turn his eyes from Christ as he seeks a starting point for truth in the created objects or in the haunts of philosophy, such as reason, experience, language, and law. When he is so tempted, the believer should remember where blindness ultimately led the Pharisees. Because their ultimate source of truth was their own interpretation of the law and the prophets, they were convinced that Jesus was not the Christ. Like Pilate, they failed to see Him. Because they rejected Him, Christ delivered His judgment upon them: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why do you not believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (Jn. 8:44–47 NIV).
The challenge is clear: we are either committed to the truth or to a lie; we either begin and end with Christ or we begin and end with Satan. If we belong to God, we hear the testimony of God and shape our thinking and our lives in the truth, Jesus Christ. If we do not belong to God, we attend to the voice of Satan, the old liar, who subtly provides idolatrous sources of truth.
Scripture clearly reveals that two persons, heads of two kingdoms, are battling for the lives of men: God and Satan. This leaves no neutral ground on which one can develop his own ideas of truth. The days of ignorance are past; God’s verdict has come. God now commands all people everywhere to repent (d. Acts 17:30). When the apostle Paul spoke to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, he made it very clear that the God who created the heavens and earth is not an object made with human hands. After all, God is not an image made by man’s design and skill, nor does He live in temples built by man’s hands (d. Acts 17:24, 25, 29). According to Paul, all such thought is foolishness (d. I Cor. 1:20), and he commands the believer to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (II Cor. 10:5 NIV). Thus, standing in the light of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, Paul had nothing to fear from the philosophers of Athens. In another passage Paul reminds his readers that it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” He continues: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?” (I Cor. 1:19, 20 NIV). For Paul—and for the Christian—wisdom without Christ is foolishness and the philosopher without Christ merely conveys the meandering of a frustrated mind.
Dr. Dennison is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA.