Sunday, December 30, 2012

Individualism: a Result of the Reformation or Romanticism?


[The sledding hill at The Farm]


My thesis is that the radical individualism of the western world, and particularly America, has its primary roots in Romanticism, and its American daughter Transcendentalism.

These insidious ideas have trickled down to every nook and cranny of society, from the college professor to the homeless man on the street. Movies, T.V. shows, pop songs, all testify to the far-reaching influence of this philosophy.

Philosophies often work in the following way: most people may not be able to give an accurate definition of the terms Romanticism and Transcendentalism, some may not have even heard of the terms, and most people may not have read any of the original works of these schools of thoughts--but they unquestionably hold to the pervasive ideas nonetheless. 

The basic tenant of these sister schools of thought is that truth is found inside yourself—and above all, be true to yourself. It dishes up to us two alternatives, demanding that we choose one: either we be true to ourselves, or we be fake/false to ourselves.

But scripture frames the world completely different. First of all, nowhere in scripture are we told to be false, or pretenders, or hypocrites. But the alternative to being a hypocrite is not the Disney movie fixation with “following your heart.”

There is a different road that is only understood through the wisdom of revelation. It is spiritually discerned. This road says that there is nothing good inside me, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Therefore, it must seek truth outside itself.

In scripture, truth changes your heart, so that your true self becomes someone different than you used to be. A transformation takes place. We are changed from one degree of glory to another as we behold his face (2 Corinthians 3:18). We don’t desire to be true to the person we “naturally” are, because by nature, we are corrupt and in need of redemption.

But it is false to assume that the reformation gave rise to a sort of individualism where each person had to be true to themselves. No, the reformers understood full well everything I just stated, and we know they did because they wrote about it very clearly.

The reformers fully acknowledged that humans needed to submit to a truth outside themselves. They never advocated being true to oneself.

The switch that happened at the reformation was the question of what authority outside of yourself are you going to be true to. Is it going to be the authority of the church and tradition, or the authority of scripture? Both of these exist outside of oneself and are something that one submits his fallen intellect to.

And then the question becomes, in Protestantism: “Who’s to say what interpretation of scripture is the right one?”

My answer: the things that were really important to God that we all agree on, He made crystal clear in scripture: the deity of Christ, the infallibility of scripture, the nature of sin and redemption, the atonement, etc (not meant to be exhaustive, just a sampling.)

This does not mean that people will never deny these fundamentals. Of course they do, but for true seekers of truth, the most necessary answers can be easily seen from scriptures.

As to the finer points, freedom in religion is not perfect, but better than the alternative (IMHO). I like what James Madison says in the federalist papers, quoted at the end.

Because to the uncomfortable “baptism drama” that has surrounded our lives the last couple of years, few people have as much firsthand experience with the complications that arise from the different interpretations of scripture which Protestantism as enabled.

So why do I defend it?

In order to explain that, I need to first submit another question which had been gnawing on my mind for about a decade, and how I answered it.

I have often asked myself why God did not ordain that a clear verse be placed in scripture that could once-for-all settle the infant baptism controversy: I’d like one airtight proof text on a platter, to go please. (As if God was a vending machine.)

No matter where your baptism convictions lie, you should be able to admit that scripture could be more clear than it is. There could either be a verse that says: “Now some tried to bring infants to be baptized, but they were turned away. ‘You must be 18,’ said the disciples.” Or, we could have only a few words added, such as, “Lydia’s household was baptized, including the infants.” Now those verses would not have been that hard for God to add!

But I answered my decade’s old query the following way: that God is not as concerned with answering our squabbles as He is with having us pursue wisdom from His scriptures apart from proof texts. Now that takes some heavy theological lifting and many of our flabby jello brains (mine included) are often not up to the task. Well, God has ordained, if we’re not willing to do the study, in this case we don’t get the answer.

It is my personal opinion (being a paedobaptist) that a proof text for infant baptism may have created more problems than it answered and that God ordained the Baptist set as a means to keep us theologically balanced. As it stands, because paedobaptism has no proof text, it can only be arrived at by a robust understanding of the nature of covenants in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s vision for families and the father as head of household including the nature of headship, God’s promise to bless a thousand generations, and the role of faith by the parents. (BTW, infant baptism never negates the necessity of each individual to be born again. This is a common misconception.)

Through understanding those principles is the only way that God wanted infant baptism to be arrived at (IMHO.) He didn’t want people practicing it based on proof texts. A proof text may have led people to trust in the ceremony and not the principles outlined by a comprehensive understanding of scripture.

This is just a theory of course—it’s not a hill I’m going to die on. (BTW, we love all you Baptists friends—even though, I, a-hem, can’t, um, ever, **cough** take, communion with y’all. It’s all good—see you at the marriage supper of the lamb.)

And now, back to the reformation and the diversity it inspired. Just like political liberty, religious liberty requires a lot from us. But the things it requires of us are all good things that the Lord wants for us. The reformation fostered an atmosphere where a person needed to pursue in-depth study leading to a knowledge of scripture so that we know what we believe and didn’t sit idly by, allowing others do to our heavy thinking for us. We have to live out the prayer: “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things in your law.” We have to discipline our faculties in study, discernment, and humility—being willing to admit it when belief we’ve held all our lives, we no longer believe.

This is not to belie the legitimate gift of teaching, of which not all are equally blessed with, but to deny the possibility of trusting in a teacher to the point where we no longer have to be a Berean, diligently searching the scripture to see whether what the teacher is proposing is sound. (Acts 17:11)

In my humble opinion, the benefits of religious liberty are preferable despite the acknowledged difficulties—factions of every stripe conceivable.

But in some ways, factions can serve as an advantage in and of themselves. If someone’s beliefs truly lie apart from orthodoxy (they deny the trinity, deity of Christ, etc.), I’d prefer they not remain in the one church option, but be allowed to go start their Unitarian denomination, or whatever they believe, and they can take with them those who agree. I prefer teachers to openly declare their beliefs, rather than pretending to be orthodox and systematically undermining from under the table. The protestant system allows for this transparency.

‘Tis true, the Bible speaks often of unity. But unity is not the same thing as uniformity. The unity that we have in Christ is one that exists in spite of our minor differences. Our unity is based on our adherence to the fundamentals, the non-negotiables, not on absolute uniformity. We have unity in the midst of our diversity.

Equating the reformation with Romanticism and individualism is understandable because of how pervasive Romanticism has become, so that many have blended the two the two into a hodge-podge philosophy. However, I believe that the true ideas of the reformation are an antidote to the follow-your-heart mantra heard daily in every living room of America.

But misunderstandings concerning the reformation existed right from the beginning. For example, Luther’s ideas were hijacked right from the beginning, such as the peasant uprisings of 1525 which were done in his name, but which Luther soundly condemned:
“For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul; and the gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4:32–37. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are!” 1

My point is that unintended consequences, that are an abuse of the principle being expounded, are not a sufficient critique of any philosophy. None of us would want our own ideas judged that way.

And now, I’m going to attempt to summarize my thoughts on both this post and my previous one on states seceding.

Having hopefully established in my previous post, the superiority of education that all of our FFs received compared to anyone I personally know (sorry guys), I will now quote from James Madison, from Federalist Paper No. 10:
“There are again two methods of removing the causes of factions: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
   
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
 The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests.  The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments an views of these respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society in to different interests and parties.”


1.Jaroslav J. Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Luther's Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Pub. House and Fortress Press, 1955–1986), 46: 50–51.

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