Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (July 1986) 195-204.

          Copyright © 1986 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

       Thinking like a Christian

                              Part 3:

 

                 A Call for Christian Humanism

 

 

D. Bruce Lockerbie

 

 

The novel The Great Gatsby ends with Nick Carraway, the

narrator, musing on what he calls "the last and greatest of all

human dreams."1 It is that, certainly: the last and greatest, as

F Scott Fitzgerald writes; but it is also the first and foremost, the

primary dream. Anthropologists and students of myth recognize it

as such; even casual readers of the Bible find this same dream

tracing its way from Eden to Mount Ararat and beyond to a mid-

night conversation between a Pharisee named Nicodemus and an

itinerant Teacher from Nazareth. This "last and greatest of all

human dreams," this first and foremost aspiration, is the dream of

starting all over again.

Other similar expressions are in use, such as "turning over a

new leaf, " "making a fresh start, " "creating a new identity, " "achiev-

ing a new consciousness." The hope contained in these terms is

that, somehow—by an act of the will, by a physical uprooting from

one location to another, by a deliberate change in behavior—new

conditions can be formed that will lead to a happier life.

In specifically Christian terms, this experience is provided for

by the new birth—being born again. The gospel offers this hope in

spiritual rebirth by faith, regeneration, and renewal. Indeed Chris-

tians look back to their time of rebirth; but they can also look

forward to a time when God the Creator will fulfill His promise to

make everything new, the a]pokata<stasij ("restoration") of proph-

ecy and apostolic preaching.

 

                                                  195

 



196                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1986

 

           Defining Humanism

 

This is God's plan, to be performed in God's time. But to the

God-denying secularist, for whom there is no supernatural dimen-

sion, no ultimate power outside this natural sphere, "God's plan"

and "God's time" are nonsense. If anything new is to come about,

says secular man, it will happen only because human beings them-

selves achieve it. This certainty, this self-assurance, stems from the

belief, declared by Protagoras in the fifth century B.C., that "man is

the measure of all things."2 This is the philosophy of the egocentric

self, the vanity that exalts the individual over any other authority.

Even his Greek contemporaries—the playwright Sophocles, for

instance—recognized the heresy of Protagoras, who also wrote,

“About the gods I have no means of knowing whether they exist or

do not exist or what their form may be.”3

If, then, the concept of God is at best irrelevant, if human

ingenuity is all there is to rely on, there is no course open but to

establish the supremacy of human values and the legitimacy of

human claims to control human destiny. This is the attitude popu-

larly known as humanism; but because that word has been so

loosely used and abused in many quarters, the term "secular

humanism" may be used. This is the dogma that exalts the human

being as the god of this age. For secular humanism is the religion of

the contemporary culture. It has its own shrines and cathedrals,

its idols and icons, its scriptures and creed, its hymns and bumper

stickers. All these proclaim belief in a naturalistic universe defined

by time and space, denial of any supernatural or eternal reality,

denial of human accountability to a personal and transcendent

God. The magazine Free Inquiry condenses the creed to a sen-

tence: "Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence

rather than in divine guidance."4

A serious blunder is being made by well-meaning Christians

in the pulpit and the classroom, before television cameras, and in

widely read books. This is the common practice of assuming that

all humanism is the same as secular humanism, that the historic

tradition known as "Christian humanism" is an oxymoron, a

contradiction as puzzling as "liberal Republican." To give the

proper setting for this point some broad strokes of historical survey

need to be made.

 

                       The Roots of Biblical Humanism

 

Christians trace the revelation of truth about God to the his-



A Call for Christian Humanism                               197

 

torical Chaldean whose willingness to trust the God of the cove-

nant resulted in the righteousness of faith. All believers are the

"sons and daughters" of Abraham, his spiritual descendants (Rom.

4:12; Gal. 3:29). But Christians are therefore also heirs of culture

as well as heirs of faith. Yahweh's covenant with Abraham did not

invalidate the patriarch's need to eat and sleep. His tents prospered,

his flocks increased, his wealth and power expanded. Abraham

became the associate of kings, as well as being priest of Mamre and

Beersheba, the stout-hearted father on Mount Moriah. Further-

more those covenant promises of God were to be fulfilled through

an ever-enlarging penetration by Abraham's children. "Your

descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,"

said the Lord, "and through your offspring all nations on earth will

be blessed, because you have obeyed me" (Gen. 22:17-18, niv).

            Clearly the call of Abraham to leave the culture of Ur and trek

the Fertile Crescent to Canaan was not a call to cultural isolation. It

was a call to reestablish an order of living in which God's authority

was supreme, a call to thinking and acting on godly principles, a

call to living in full obedience and full delight. The same must be

true for Abraham's spiritual descendants today. Christians are

called not only to the test of faith but also to the blessings con-

comitant with faith. Believers have inherited the rich legacy that

begins with recognition of God and continues through mankind's

unique relationship with God as Creator and Lord. From this same

legacy springs the revelation in the written Word and the incarnate

Word, the doctrine that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to

Himself' (2 Cor. 5:19). From this legacy of faith, new hope brings

dignity to all of life, dissolving the old fear of death; a new regard for

all persons—men and women, husbands and wives, parents and

children, masters and servants—eliminating the old bondage to

pride and caste. From this legacy a new social order evolves, in

which Jesus Christ is Lord. Wherever this recognition obtains,

that domain becomes known as Christendom; the cultures that

come under the saving knowledge of the gospel combine to form a

way of life that may be called a Christian civilization, marked by a

consciousness of the Cross and the empty tomb.

From the beginning of Christianity's influence on the Mediter-

ranean world, some 250 years before the Emperor Constantine

proclaimed the church as his own, its role as conservator of social

and domestic values has been clear. In a culture where the home

and hearth were, first, honored in the worship of patron goddesses,

then debauched in fornication at temples, Christian apostles and



198                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1986

 

teachers called for faithfulness in marriage. At the same time,

when Gnostic heresy began to infect Christian doctrine with denial

of material worth, the writers of the New Testament letters affirmed

the goodness of God in nature and the sanctity of all that God had

created, including the human body, confirmed by the incarnation,

resurrection, and exaltation of God-in-flesh in the person of Jesus

of Nazareth. By extension, therefore, Christian doctrine calls for a

recognition of the sacramental possibilities in every human act

and artifact. For if "culture" may be defined as "the work of men's

minds and hands,"5 then within every culture lies the potential for

believers to praise God.

 

                                   The Breadth of Truth

 

So for all its emphasis on conserving the truths of Jewish and

early Christian teachings, Christian doctrine never excluded truth

from other sources as well. Paul occasionally made reference to

pagan literature (e.g., Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) in teaching his new

message to Greeks familiar with the old ways. Of course Paul was

not thereby acknowledging the validity of all pagan writings. He

was simply recognizing an element of truth in some of that liter-

ature. While God's ultimate revelation of truth is embodied in Jesus

Christ, truth is not limited to Christ's few years of earthly life.

Justin Martyr, the second-century apologist, spoke of this

truth. Prior to his conversion he had been a teacher, entitled to

wear the blue robe marking his profession. After he became a

Christian, he continued to wear the robe, having determined that

the Logos for which he had been seeking in philosophy was now

made known to him in Jesus Christ.

More than 250 years after Justin, at the beginning of the

fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, in his treatise On Christian

Doctrine, argued against those who would restrict Christians from

studying and learning to appreciate the work of nonbelievers. In a

passage of sublime insight Augustine wrote, "Every good and true

Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is

his Lord's."6

By so recognizing the universality of truth and its divine

origin, and by following the examples of both Justin Martyr and

the apostles, Augustine established a model for thinking Chris-

tians to emulate. But today many Christians seem to have lost

much of this breadth of truth. They have become victims of their

own narrow and defensive views. Now as never before they need to



  A Call for Christian Humanism                             199

 

liberate their minds and hearts—their intellects and emotions-

from all that would enshackle them; they need to become open and

free to all that is reasonable and lovely, orderly and inspiring,

stimulating to further knowledge and at the same time overwhelm-

ing in its awesome beauty. They need to reclaim for God what He

has given and they have squandered, offering back to Him what

their mind and hands find to do. If thinking Christians were to live

each day in full realization that every area of life belongs to God,

they would see again the kind of art, literature, education, govern-

ment, and social order that marked much of Christendom in

earlier centuries. The church would experience again culture cap-

tured for Christ, culture embraced by Christians throughout every

aspect of living, as was the case during the 15th and 16th centuries

in Europe.

In the Middle Ages, when infant mortality was high and life

expectancy short, when the serf system bore down heavily on most

people, when education was limited to a few, the church had little to

offer by way of comfort for this life. Its eye was fixed on the pros-

pects of life-to-come, "the life everlasting" of the creed. Human life

and human endeavor seemed to count little when weighed against

eternal values. Against this bleakness arose the reaction known as

the Renaissance, stirred by a revival of interest in ancient Greek

and Latin writers whose work had offered a brighter view of human

worth.

It is hard for people today to imagine that there was ever a time

when books had the same power as the television screen to rule

lives and set forth values. But so it was, just as there had also been a

time in Athenian society when public discourse determined the

highest ethic. The revival in Europe of classical literature asserted

human and humane values idealized in love sonnets and sculp-

ture, in painting and fine speech. This preoccupation with the

present life became known as humanism, but it was not neces-

sarily Protagoras's kind of rebellion against God's standard of mea-

surement; rather, it was a reaffirmation of the biblical appreciation

for human experience lived in a mutually caring and responsible

relationship with God the majestic yet loving Father. Certainly it is

true that, under the guise of reasserting human worth and individ-

ual importance to God, humanism in some of its forms exalted the

creature over the Creator; some men renewed Protagoras's

agnosticism, raising a battle cry against divine authority. But if

some aspects of humanism led to a perverse sense of human

autonomy, humanism also led to a breaking of the medieval



200                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1986

 

church's stranglehold on the free expression of faith, for human-

ism led to the Reformation.

In the nominally Christian states of Europe the church passed

its laws compelling baptism and uniform church attendance, but

nothing could compel the spirit to believe or the mind to accept as

necessary a God propped up by a human prince. Medieval scholars

plodded through their constructs of questions and answers, but

could their cold, formalistic reasoning warm men's hearts with the

love of God? Could men and women learn to see the goodness and

grandeur of God in His works of common grace? What of man's

attempts to glorify God in return? Can art and architecture, poetry

and song reflect anything heavenly by means of earthly expres-

sion? Or, to put the question plainly, can a person be both a

Christian and a scholar, a Christian and an artist?7

 

                                                         Christian Humanists

 

An affirmative reply may seem straightforward and obvious

today, but it was a radical response when, after A.D. 1300, Dante

began writing his epic The Divine Comedy in vernacular Italian

rather than ecclesiastical Latin; or after A.D. 1400, when Flemish

and Italian painters began depicting religious themes by means of

realistic figures of common people in familiar settings. Little by

little, artists and then scholars began to make the worship and love

of God less ethereal, less other-worldly, less spiritual, less remote,

less divine—more human! Was this not in keeping with the gospel

itself and its doctrine of the Incarnation? Had not God chosen to

become human, thereby sanctifying by His very bodily form and

substance the life known by human beings?

Little of this humanizing reality, this mystery of God-in-flesh,

came through the categorical theology of that time. The gospel was

being suffocated by too great a reliance on systematics and dialec-

tics. There were no translations of the Bible in the common Euro-

pean languages. Furthermore, until the advent of Johann Guten-

berg's printing press around 1456, access to manuscripts was

limited and learning necessarily depended a great deal on rote

acceptance rather than inquiry and discovery for oneself.

But by the middle of the 15th century, aided by Gutenberg's

invention, ancient texts and scholars who could read them began

finding their way into Italy, Germany, and France. Here were men

who knew not only the classical poets but also the language of the

New Testament and the Eastern Church Fathers. Subsequently a



A Call for Christian Humanism                               201

 

new interest in learning Greek and Hebrew sprang up, and with

this interest in the Bible's original languages came the translation

of the Scriptures into common tongues.

Three names from this era are important to remember.

Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), a linguist, goaded theologians into

understanding that their hermeneutics must be based not on their

knowledge of theology but their knowledge of the Bible itself. Next

John Colet (1466-1519), an English priest, founder of St. Paul's

School and dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, gave his Oxford lectures in

1496, on Romans and 1 Corinthians. These were unlike anything

before their time. Instead of turning every line of text into allegory,

Colet actually treated the text as if a man named Paul had written

an important letter to other men and women in a real city called

Rome or Corinth. He brought Paul to life; he brought Paul's readers

and their problems to life; he made the Bible breathe with vitality.

Colet's friend Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) is the third

name. Erasmus may have been the greatest scholar in history. His

accomplishments were numerous, but among his most important

were these: his translation of the New Testament from the Greek

text; his call for Bible study by everyone, including women; and his

paraphrases of the Gospels and the Epistles, eventually translated

into German, French, and English. Erasmus is responsible for

some of the most profoundly striking statements, as these

instances show:

 

People say to me, How can scholarly knowledge facilitate the under-

standing of Holy Scripture? My answer is, How does ignorance con-

tribute to it?

 

Only a few can be scholars, but there is no one who cannot be a

Christian.

 

To be a schoolmaster is next to being a king. Do you count it a mean

employment to imbue the minds of your fellow-citizens in their

earliest years with the best literature and with the love of Christ, and

to return them to their country honest and virtuous men? In the

opinion of fools it is a humble task, but in fact it is the noblest of

occupations.

 

All studies, philosophy, rhetoric are followed for this one object, that

we may know Christ and honor Him. This is the end of all learning

and eloquence.8

 

                                              Thinking in Christian Categories

 

The commitment of Erasmus and others like him to a pro-

gram of studies so singlemindedly Christ-centered sets him



202                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1986

 

and other Christian humanists of his time among the forerunners

in the search for an authentic integration of faith and learning.

Their sense of wholeness in studies and teaching, in art and

science, in politics and government, puts to shame many of today's

so-called "Christian schools" and "Christian colleges, " whose index

of forbidden pleasures maybe their highest measure of orthodoxy;

whose curriculum and instruction resemble not at all T S. Elliot's

understanding that "the purpose of a Christian education would

not be merely to make men and women pious Christians….A

Christian education would primarily train people to be able to

think in Christian categories."9

The Christian humanists of long ago knew how to think in

Christian categories. They devoted their lives to serving Jesus

Christ by making His Word more accessible. By their example they

encouraged artists and musicians to follow their vocations in

representing the truth of Scripture in human terms. Of course

these men were flawed. Erasmus, for instance, chose to remain a

Roman Catholic and debated bitterly with Luther. No doubt many

believers today would disagree with Erasmus and Luther too on

some points, but is their work to be ignored and their integrity

transgressed by today's ignorance?

Peculiarly, television preachers and film lecturers and writers

of predigested history books often fail to deal with Erasmus and

other Christian humanists. But history is not to be bent to suit

one's prejudice; nor does a word like "humanism" lose its primary

meaning just because it is adopted by atheistic naturalists. The

Ethical Culture Society, the British Humanist Association, and the

publishers of Free Inquiry have corrupted the word "humanism,"

and the nature of "language laziness" is such that, once a word has

been commandeered and its usage made familiar, it is all but

impossible to redeem that word from corruption and restore its

historic meaning. Such corruption is witnessed in the now-stan-

dard use of "gay" to mean "homosexual." "Humanism" is another

word worthy of redemption.

In a 1972 book, The Way They Should Go, this writer offered

the phrase "Christian artists and scholars" as a palliative to anyone

who might gag over "Christian humanists. " He was too timid to call

for a revival of the spirit of Christian humanism by name—Chris-

tian humanism as exemplified by saints and singers, artists, and

poets since the day of Pentecost. Today this writer hopes to atone

for that blunder by issuing a call for Christian humanists, a chal-

lenge to thinking Christians everywhere to reclaim for God the life



A Call for Christian Humanism                               203

 

of the mind, the world of imagination, the things of the spirit. This

is a call for Christians to begin enjoying the abundant life promised

them—their utterly human and dependent walk with Jesus

Christ. To heed this call, Christian educators are needed at every

level and in every sphere who understand the legacy of Christian

humanism and are not ashamed of their inheritance as modern

Christian humanists. Such leaders are needed to point the way to a

Christian renaissance.

But while many Christian educators know their purpose,

many in the church have grown suspicious of their supposed

erudition. What will win them to an enlightened understanding of

God's benediction on learning? Only an unremitting allegiance to

Jesus Christ revealed in the Word of God. Erasmus—towering

thinker that he was—could nonetheless write the following:

 

I utterly disagree with those who do not want the Holy Scriptures to

be read by the uneducated in their own language, as though Christ's

teaching was so obscure that it could hardly be understood even by a

handful of theologians, or as though the strength of Christian

religion consisted in men's ignorance of it.... I hope the farmer

may sing snatches of Scripture at his plough, that the weaver may

hum bits of Scriptures to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler

may lighten the weariness of his journey with stories from the

Scripture. 10

 

This is the vision of the true Christian humanist.11 At Dallas

Theological Seminary, at The Stony Brook School, throughout

formal Christian education—wherever Jesus Christ is professed—

teachers and students alike should labor to regain that vision of

their predecessors. Christians today are challenged to join with

Paul and Timothy, with Justin Martyr and Jerome, with Augustine

and Alcuin, with Calvin and Knox, with Luther and Erasmus, with

Comenius and Milton, with T S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, with

Gresham Machen and Griffith Thomas and Frank Gaebelein

Christian humanists all. May Christians join together in renewed

commitment to their treasured task as conservators and pro-

claimers of the good news.

 

                                                            Editor's Note

 

This is the third in a series of four articles delivered by the author as

the W H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary,

November 5-8, 1985.



204                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1986

 

                                              Notes

 

1   E Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925),

p. 182.

2   Bernard M. W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

1957), p. 45.

3   Ibid., p. 161.

4   Free Inquiry 1 (Winter 1980/81), cover page.

5   H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1956),

p. 33.

6   Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W Robertson, Jr. (Indianapolis:

Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1958), p. 54.

7   For an expanded treatment of this problem, see E. Harris Harbison, The Chris-

tian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,

1956). This writer is happy to acknowledge his debt to Harbison's scholarship. The

opening paragraph of his book reads: "The Christian scholar-like the Christian

poet, the Christian musician, or the Christian scientist-has always run the risk of

being dismissed as an anomaly. What has learning to do with salvation of the soul,

or satisfaction of the mind with peace of the spirit? ... Yet the fact is that almost

from the beginning of Christianity there have been those who pursued learning as

a Christian calling, in the belief that they were following God's will" (p. 1).

8   See ibid., chap. 3, "Erasmus," pp. 69-102; and H. C. Porter, "Introduction,"

Erasmus and Cambridge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963).

9   "The Idea of a Christian Society" in Christianity and Culture (New York:

Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1949), p. 22.

10   Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation, pp. 100-101.

11   For further reading on this topic, see "A Christian Humanist Manifesto," ed.

James I. Packer et al., Eternity, January 1982, pp. 15-22. See also James I. Packer

and Thomas Howard, Christianity: The True Humanism (Waco, TX: Word Books,

1985).

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Dr. Roy Zuck

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

 Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu