Currently, I’m reading through a book on the history of Christianity and the Reformation called The Division of Christendom by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Well, actually, I’ve pretty much finished it, but I’m going back through it since I’ll be submitting a review of it for the SWBTS journal. Near the end of this massive volume, Hillerbrand discusses some of his conclusions and some of his observed consequences of the Reformation. Although these types of reflective moments are few and far between in his retelling of the religious events of the 16th century, he takes time at the end of his “Conclusions” to compare one particular aspect of the 16th century with the 21st century.
According to Hillerbrand, although one result of the Reformation was a regained respect for the common man, both in society and religion, for the most part, the everyday man remained theologically dispassionate. This is not to say that the normal citizen wasn’t engaged in the monumental events of the sixteenth century; instead, the point that Hillerbrand is making is that the common man longed to be a part of a movement, but didn’t want to get involved with the heavy-lifting when it came to the intellect.
In looking at the 21st century, Hillerbrand remarks that not much has changed. As a test case, he reflects upon the Joint Declaration on Justification, which was signed in 1999, marking a theological compromise between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Prompting Christian Unity. Hillerbrand notes that when this radical statement was made public, it received almost unanimous disapproval from the foremost German theologians and historians. Ultimately, somewhere around 250 of them (approximately 98% of all German Lutheran theologians), agreed to sign a letter stating their rejection of the proposed, unified Lutheran-Catholic position on the doctrine of justification.
From this information, Hillerbrand observes, “In other words, the experts dissented (404).” The Lutheran synods, full of everyday laymen, had no problem in ratifying a historic document that seemingly was full of good intentions inasmuch as it was an attempt at bringing about healing from wounds inflicted in the 16th century between these two groups; however, “the common man” “showed no discernible interest either in the joint declaration or, for that matter, in dissenting theologians (404).” Again, Hillerbrand remarks, “[I]t is surely safe to say that even today most church members, whatever their denomination, have little interest and even less competence in any serious engagement in current theological feuds and disagreements (404).”
After reading this passage, I couldn’t help but nod along as I processed his conclusions. I know there is always a danger in giving one big broad generalization, and I’m not delusional to think that no “common man” exists who is theologically-interested and competent. Nevertheless, it appears that the majority of the everyday man is not so inclined. On a popular level, I can think of two recent issues that have arisen which have exposed the state of Christianity today in the world outside of the seminaries and institutions: The DaVinci Code and The Shack.
Here we have two fiction books, each contributing in its own unique way to unveiling the Christian state of mind. For instance, on the one hand, The DaVinci Code, which promoted itself as historical fact, turned the layman’s world upside down as he found himself engulfed in a story which sought to unmask the supposed lies of traditional Christianity by purporting that Jesus wasn’t God, that he married Mary Magdalene, and that the Bible couldn’t be trusted. I remember when the book was selling like hotcakes and the controversy was at its peak, having “the common man” come up to me with a look of utter distraught and desperation in light of the claims that Dan Brown had made, begging for me to give him something to hold on to as he felt like his faith was like oil steadily slipping through the cracks of his fingers.
On the other hand, on a more recent note, William P. Young’s The Shack, whether consciously or sub-consciously, undermines the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity, and it does not require a seminary-trained eye to catch the blatant heretical claims plastered across its pages. But it never fails, that almost one or twice every few weeks, I stumble upon a believer who is reading it or has read it, and is shocked to find out that I’m not as in love with it as they are. Needless to say, I remain dumbfounded when as I attempt to explain why they shouldn’t fall head-over-heels in love with Young’s theological liberty in his fictitious story, they respond with something to the effect: “Ya know, I never even picked up on that,” or “Wow, that never crossed my mind.”
The problem, at least in my view, and with reference to what Hillerbrand is trying to point out in his illustration from the Lutheran-Catholic treaty on justification, is that the major theological controversies of the day are not the complex, technical mumbo-jumbo that only people with PhDs can understand. Rather, these issues are dealing with the most basic fundamentals of the gospel, and “the common man,” in large part, is both unable to articulate the rudimentary principles of the Christian faith and to recognize when deception and false doctrine call themselves truth.
Must “the experts” always be the only ones, or perhaps even the first, to sound the gong when false prophets and teachers are on the rise? As someone who isn’t necessarily an “expert,” but who is, although, working on his third theological degree, I can say that it would be encouraging to see more of the everyday man in the body of Christ more alert and armed, equipped and watchful, so that we might all together “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saint (Jude 3b).” When I chime in on my blog warning Christians everywhere to beware the latest fad that is lurking around as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the standard response is, “Oh, here is another one of the talking-heads, who has to have everything just right.” Or, I’m written off as a compulsive “Mr. Know-it-all.” This experience was shared by the Apostle Paul even in the 1st century. He tells the Galatians (exactly the way I feel at times), “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth (Gal 4:16)?
Alas, it shouldn’t be that way, and it wouldn’t if more within the Christian community were willing as well as able to stand up and to defend the integrity of the gospel, both in its simplicity and its complexity besides those who pay tuition for formal training. My quarrel isn’t that the layman should be just as theologically-educated and keen as the person who serves as a “theologian” in terms of his profession or career. But, as I stated above, the problem is that it seems that “the common man” is becoming more and more unfamiliar and uninterested with the fundamentals of Christian truth, not the scholarly jargon and higher-academic discussions, to the point that the “voices crying in the wilderness” are for the most part, “the experts,” while the everyday man passively and actively embraces the world’s twisted and deceptive spin on the gospel of God.
As I reflect on these concerns, I would like to leave with a few questions:
- Do you agree with this assessment? If not, why?
- If so, why do you think that this is the case both in the 16th century and the 21st century on a majority level?
- What is the place of the layman in this regard, and what is the expectation of Scripture on his or her aptitude towards theological knowledge and competence?
- How can we fix it? What are some steps we can take to better equip “the common man” with the tools necessary to be bold and efficient, defenders of the faith?