I had an interesting encounter with a gentleman in Caribou Coffee the other day… I set down at a table with my computer and a dozen books or so which I was using to do research for my job with Docent Research Group. A man who said he was ordained in the “Methodist Free Church” comes up to me and says “You know all of that is completely unnecessary. Nobody’s ever going to ask you about any of that. Christianity is a religion of the heart.”
I was so flabbergasted that I struggled to find words.
Before I could so much as introduce myself to him, I had the privilege of listening to him go on for another 3 or 4 minutes about how Greek and Hebrew were useless today and how he thought seminary students should learn Mandarin… He thought that we would be much more “relevant.” Books and doctrine he said, leads to “denominationalism.” By all of these words I guess he intended to say that we shouldn’t study so much and just learn to reach the culture…
In passing he said that he traveled all over Europe teaching religion.
Though he didn’t say so explicitly, I’m assuming that Christianity is a part of his curriculum. I thought of asking him how it was exactly that he could teach a class on a religion that was solely “of the heart”… Seems like it would be difficult to teach on a religion that has little or no propositional content (as he implies).
To his credit, he was a very friendly man with a warm, broad smile. I found him quite amiable.
The time did leave me reflecting on his thoughts. Here are a few things I might challenge this man to think about, or any of you who may hold to similar convictions:
(1) How is it that you came to understand that Christianity was a religion of the heart? Undoubtedly it was through someone’s teaching, whether that of Jesus or another pastor or family member or someone else. Even religions that focus on the heart (whatever that means) must have some kind of propositional content that defines them. To say that there is no need to study a religion’s content because it is a “religion of the heart” is to contradict oneself, because that very statement is one about the nature of its content (or the absence of it). As Tim Keller has said somewhere: “The insistance that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself” (found on Twitter @DailyKeller on 1/5/2012). There is no way to say that a religion has no content because that same statement assigns it content. The only way to make such a statement is to say nothing about it. This man’s argument would have been much stronger if he had merely looked at my books and simply kept walking, not bothering to stop at my table and teach me about how Christianity has nothing to teach.
(2) The language of “heart” in the Bible does not exclude rationality or cognition. The very concept of heart in the Bible has a cognitive aspect to it. Isaiah 6:10 mentions people “understanding with their hearts” (as does John 12:40). This indicates that the heart and the understanding are not at odds but are, in some way, integrated. To say that Christianity is a religion of the heart doesn’t, biblically speaking, imply that cognition is not important but in fact supports the idea the Christian faith is robustly rational and not merely emotive.
(3) Who was Jesus? Jesus was a man, born in Bethlehem of Judah some 2000+ years ago who was betrayed and brutally murdered by his own people only to rise again 3 days later. These are historical facts. Christianity is founded upon actual historical events that preclude the possibility of total subjectivity. Yes, Christianity has a clear subjective element to it, but those subjective elements are rooted in a real historical story without which they would have no meaning. Jesus said certain things, did certain things, and is a certain way because he was an actual person. Who Jesus was is not up for debate—it is a historical fact. To say that Jesus’ Spirit lives in your heart means nothing if Jesus is not a real person (or if he didn’t teach that after he died and rose he was going to send The Comforter into our hearts).
(4) How do we know who Jesus was? The only way anyone can rightly say they know who Jesus was is because of the Bible. It is the Bible that tells us about the life and teaching of Jesus. Without the apostle’s record of his life there is no accurate, ongoing, source of knowledge about the central Christian figure. How can we then, say that learning Greek and Hebrew (the two original languages of the NT and OT, respectively) is irrelevant or unimportant? It is these two languages that hold the keys to our Bibles and that unlock the words describing the most important figure in all of human history. God said that man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). God chose to have his words be written down in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek originally. It is these words in these languages that God inspired, not English, or Mandarin, or Arabic, or some other language. Looked at from this angle, studying the original languages is a matter of life and death. Pastors need to be familiar with how to handle the languages. Without them, knowing Mandarin becomes a useless enterprise. How can you share, in Mandarin, words and ideas written down over 1800 years ago, if you are not sure what those words are? How can we be sure that the transmission of those words is accurate and reliable? How do we answer the Mandarin-speaking skeptics who say that the translations have been corrupted over the years?
Imagine the following dialogue: “Hey, Rachel, the plumber dropped in while you were gone and left a bill on the table for $2500. He says he fixed your problem. Just give me the check and I’ll take it to him.” “Well Michelle,” Rachel replies, “I’d really like to see the bill and confirm the charges before I write a check for such a large amount.” “That won’t be necessary, Rachel, just take my word for it. That’s what the bill says.” “Oh, really, Michelle, could you retrieve it for me and show me, so I can be sure?” Michelle hesitantly replies, “I can’t read it. The man was Jewish and spoke little English. He wrote the bill down in Hebrew. But I’m confident that’s what it says!”
It is doubtful that anyone would take action on anything that is going to cost them a lot based on such shaky evidence.
(5) Who created the world? Christianity teaches that God created everything. This means that Christians are interested in everything and that everything has value. In fact, the first scientists were Christians. These men thought that a detailed study of God’s world would help them to better understand the God who created it. Their studies weren’t motivated by what was necessary, but by the simple fact that they wanted to know God better. This is the beauty of living in God’s world—he is readily observable and available anywhere! Study then is not, as my coffee house acquaintance suggested, about what is necessary or even about what people are going to ask me, but about me getting to know God better. I want to know God more! A very important part of getting to know him is seeking him through the resources he has given me. Jesus is the apex and perfection of God’s revelation, but we only know Jesus through the Scriptures. Those Scriptures point us to other places where we can get to know God, such as nature, experience, relationships, etc., but even these must be interpreted through the lenses of Scripture. God made all of life to reflect something of Him. But he intended it to do so in particular ways that are not subjective. Just as the world we live in has laws that govern it, just as our language is not arbitrary, and just as there are fundamental laws of logic that everyone intuitively understands, God is not just whatever your heart wants Him to be. He is a person with specific attributes, desires, goals, and objectives. We would do well to not rely on our hearts alone to understand God, especially since God Himself has says: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
There are many other things that could be said. But I hope that these would be enough to help those who think like the gentleman I encountered in the coffee shop see that even though the heart is extremely important to Christianity, that is far from adequate reason to remove all need for definition and doctrine.
It is possible, though highly unlikely, that a very rare few of you may have arrived at this conclusion through you own personal reasoning. Even so, it does not change the fact that reasoning through a series of propositions (whether true or false) was necessary to arrive at your conclusions.
John Frame writes in the preface to his book The Doctrine of the Christian Life “The Christian life is not only a matter of following rules of morality, but a dynamic experience: living in the fallen world, in fellowship with the living God.” (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. A Theology of Lordship [Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008], xxv.). As we live in this world and in relationship with Christ we will, with God’s help and through the direction of the Scriptures, come to know Him better. Experience is an important tool in our maturation as Christians especially as we are given grace to comprehend it in the light of God’s good sovereignty (see Phil. 3:10; Heb. 12:7-11).