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Bass & Douthat: What DO They Teach Them in These Schools?

July 16, 2012

Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them?

~ Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’

New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat wrote a piece yesterday entitled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”, to which Huffington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass wrote a response asking, “Can Christianity Be Saved?” The problem? It’s not a response at all. The matter at hand is the supposed growth or decline of liberal Christianity and the inverse growth or decline of conservative Christianity. It’s a fair and interesting subject, but the authors’ opposing conclusions have nothing to do with the veracity of the data and everything to do with the clarity of and attention to definition.

Douthat defines liberal Christianity theologically. It is doctrinally indifferent and syncretic, subject to the whims of the popular opinion and political savvy. By implication then, conservative Christianity would be a Christianity that looks to Scripture as its only rule for faith and practice and therefore remains jealous of Christ’s claim to be the world’s only possible Savior.

Bass grabs on to Douthat’s use of “liberal” and “conservative” and assumes their political definitions, for all practical purposes ignoring what Douthat intended to say. She defines liberal Christianity as “a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful.” Sounds pretty good, right? Those stingy conservative Christians, on the other hand, she associates with the often-suffocating legalism of the Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists.

Douthat defines theologically, Bass socially. The amusing catch being that what Bass defines as liberal Christianity is the intended and actual out-flowing of what Doulthat defines as conservative Christianity. That is, adherence to Biblical truth and historic creeds necessitates works of mercy and social justice. “Faith without works is dead,” says James.

From the beginning of course, the fault was in Douthat’s appropriating politically-loaded terms in order to describe theological realities. Douthat should have spoke in terms of heterodox and orthodox faith, only the latter of which brings about the warm community and social justice that Bass defines as liberal Christianity. Only men with a living faith–only men who have been raised to new life can extend that life to others.

So who is right? Is liberal Christianity declining or conservative? Or are they both? Maybe one. Maybe the other. Probably both, at least in America. But that’s the not question that should concern us. Whatever the statistics say, God has promised to preserve His church. If not here in America, for the moment, then elsewhere. But here eventually. Because God has promised that at the last day, EVERY knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The real question is do YOU confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Is your faith living? Or is it dead? And, if it is indeed a living faith, will you offer yourself up as a living sacrifice to God and to His church, which is the body of Christ?

Because it’s not Christianity that needs saving; it’s the world.

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