The “clash of orthodoxies” heralded by Princeton Professor Robert George may soon be coming to a head in America, its arrival hastened by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the guardian of freedom for social conservatives.
At heart, it is a conflict between the millions of Americans striving to be obedient to God, and the cultural elite of the West, who insist that society be ordered by their conception of the good life.
Within Christianity, it is a conflict about the meaning of the Gospel, whether it is about God’s holiness, and human sin and redemption, as the orthodox in all branches of traditional Christianity believe, or whether it is essentially a Marcionite gospel of salvation from suffering. The political controversy between conservatives and liberals today is essentially a theological controversy about this issue.
Of course it is to be presumed that no one today holds to the details of Marcion’s theology – that the Biblical revelation has its source in two gods, a cruel God of the Old Testament, and merciful God of the New Testament, yet today’s theological and political liberals do hold to Marcion’s essential idea, that the true God is a god of love, not a god of wrath. Indeed, they agree with Marcion that for God to behave as the God of Israel behaved in the Old Testament is unjust and cruel.
Like Marcion, as well, it is necessary for them to practically exclude much of the Bible. Even so orthodox a Christian as C.S. Lewis held that the Israelites misunderstood God as commanding them to annihilate the Canaanites, rather than, as the text so clearly says, that the Canaanites were being punished with death for their sin. The bloody sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant are likewise set aside as barbaric, and the burden of the prophets held to be a message of liberation, rather than condemnation for breaking Israel’s covenant with God in idolatry, whoredom, and injustice as defined by the law.
Even the New Testament must, as Marcion found, be treated very selectively, accepting only that part of the apostolic writings consistent with his belief in a god without wrath, and setting aside those referring to the Old Testament and its declarations of judgement. Since everyone today must work with the entire canon of Scripture, such judgments are specified as “restorative,” i.e., attendant to an objective of universal liberation (or salvation, understood as salvation from suffering). Additionally, it is often claimed that we must prioritize the words of Jesus over those of Paul or other apostles, not noticing that it is from Jesus we have the greater part of Scriptural references to hell, and from Paul that we have almost all of the texts taken in support of universal salvation. Nor, most importantly, is Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees directed at their ideals of holiness and purity, but at their pride and hypocrisy.
The Sermon on the Mount, which was the gospel of the Kingdom preached by Jesus, is certainly not a message of rebellion, but of obedience and humility. It includes the admonition to purity of heart (Matt. 5:8), against lustful looks (mentioned in connection with hellfire, Matt. 5:27-30), and requiring divine perfection (Matt. 5:48), along with the difficulty that we are in fact evil, and need God’s favor (Matt. 7:11). Jesus further makes clear that it is our depraved hearts and their consequences that he preached against, not defective religious ceremony (Matt 12: 3-8; Matt. 15:2, 17-20).
We often forget that Jesus came to a pious people who lived in the fear of God. Even the thieves and prostitutes among them would not have doubted that the God of Israel was real, and that they would face God on the day of judgement. Jesus generally did not confront unbelievers in the modern sense, who doubted God’s reality or his righteousness, and when he did, in the case of the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23-33; Mk 12:18-27), it was done with a bitter rebuke, or an admonition to faith, as with the father of the demon possessed epileptic (Mk 9:16-29). Similarly, Paul, like Jonah of the Old Testament, rebuked the pagans on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34), and urged them to turn to the true God in view of the day of judgment.
That a changed life, in conformity with the will of God known from Scripture, and not merely salvation from suffering, is essential to Jesus’ gospel is very evident particularly in the Gospel of Luke, which is above all others the gospel of Jesus as a savior from suffering. Luke gives four admonitions to “repent” (compared with 2 for Matthew and Mark each), and five admonitions to “repentance” (compared with 3 in Matthew and 2 in Mark). Including Acts, there are nine admonitions to “repent” and eleven admonitions to “repentance.” Lest there be any doubt that this means turning to God and away from sin, Jesus specifies at the end of the Gospel of Luke that our turning should be “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Lk. 24:47) and that all mankind is threatened with death unless they repent of their sins (Lk. 13:1-6). This is hardly a gospel that prioritizes “quality of life” above all other considerations.
The problem for faithful Christians in the West today is that to obey God in things which the new Marcionism declares to be cruel is becoming illegal. Secularists and sexual revolutionaries are increasingly clear that they offer a new and superior morality, and that what they think are the oppressions of the old morality will not be tolerated. Some examples include adhering to the Biblical sexual ethic which restricts sexual activity to the natural marriage of man and woman, declining action that contributes to sexual immorality (such as renting a domicile or bed and breakfast room to a couple not in heterosexual marriage), training children in the whole counsel of God (including the fear of divine punishment or the exclusivity of God’s truth), administering corporal punishment to children, administering church discipline for reasons having to do with exclusivist Christian faith and morals, or maintaining a Christian organization, whether for-profit or non-profit, according to one’s understanding of Biblical morality, including in hiring and dismissal of employees.
It is commonly observed that no one can offer an exact list of Christian doctrines and moral precepts. Often the exact form of a doctrine is developed in response to a threat to orthodox teaching. Yet Jesus teaching against moral stumbling and causing others to stumble (Matt. 18:6-9) is strong, and means we must look to all of God’s Word for its reasonable meaning. It is by that Word that God speaks for all time (Ps. 119:89), and He clearly commands our obedience even when excruciatingly difficult (Matt. 16:24).
The adversary, anti-Biblical doctrine – now increasingly a state doctrine, enforced by law and state regulations – is developing into a Marcionite state religion, which holds that point of life is to enjoy it. The government provides easy ways to comply with sinful requirements; simply remain within the rules and you won’t notice that you are taking the broad gate to destruction, forbidden by Jesus (Matt. 7:13). It may be that taking the narrow gate to life will mean that faithful Christians in the West will become an underclass, with business and the professions closed to many people due to sinful state requirements. Institutional support for uncompromising Christians may be lost due to institutional compromise with sinful requirements, making it impossible to be part of those institutions, or institutional closure due to failure to comply with state requirements.
But the Word of God is clear that in any conflict between divine and human authority, we must obey God rather than men. This is clear not only from the now standard text used by Christians in the current cultural conflict (Acts 5:29), but from the whole voice of Scripture. In both the Old and New Testaments, there is abundant testimony to unrighteous govenments, the duty to obey God rather than the state, the persecution that results, and God’s faithfulness to his people. We must resolve that, no matter what the consequences, we will be faithful to God’s commands, and we know that He will prevail in the end.