Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Status Confessionis” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone.
The State of the World, in Which the Church Must Stand by Her Confession
by Harold O. J. Brown
What is meant by the expression, status confessionis? It is the state, or condition, of the Church, the society, the world, in which the Church must stand by and stand up: stand by her confession and stand up for the authority of the Word of God that she confesses. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God. Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.” Those words are still sung today, but do they have any truth in them? “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound,” the Apostle asks, “who will prepare himself for the battle?” With the great “army,” at least its Protestant divisions, it is rarely anyone other than evangelicals who talks like this; for example, James Davison Hunter speaks of Culture Wars, and Charles Colson writes of Kingdoms in Conflict. When the Church is in the status confessionis, the trumpet must give a clear sound, and the army must take up its weapons, at least its verbal weapons. Otherwise it forfeits its reason for existing.
Man, the Measure, or the Measure of a Man
Almost three decades ago, when this editor was still one of them, a number of younger theologians were asked, “What will the crucial issue be for the church, for evangelicals, in the closing decades of this millennium?” Several answered, “Biblical inerrancy.” Others said, “the deity of Christ.” Now there is no denying that each of these doctrines is a vital part of traditional Protestant faith.1 Your editor, however, said something different: the crucial question for Christians, indeed for the whole human race, will be anthropology, the doctrine of man. It will be the answer to the Psalmist’s question, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). A bolder and more self-confident age thought, or presumed, that it knew the answer. A more troubled and perplexed world no longer thinks thus.
Almost a century ago, in the golden age of philosophy at Harvard, the university decided to build a new building especially for that stellar department. The president of the university asked the faculty of the philosophy department to recommend a suitable inscription to place over the doorway. After due deliberation, they proposed the words of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.” The first decade of the twentieth century was an optimistic time, la belle époche. The old foundation of human dignity as made in the image of God had crumbled, under the assaults of Darwinism, but we (or, more accurately, our predecessors of that era) believed that man was the sublime product of the evolutionary process, proud of himself and confident of his future. The summer came, the scholars scattered, as is their wont—or was their wont, before the advent of round-the-year teaching.
When those scholars of a golden past returned from their summer of refreshment to the halls of Academe that fall, they found that the president had outwitted them and written the Psalmist’s words, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Protagoras was set aside, but the optimistic humanism that his statement seems to have reflected continued for a few years: longer in North America than in Europe. Then the Titanic sank: a blow to the arrogance and self-assurance of autonomous man. Not long thereafter the continent of Europe erupted in fire and smoke, and millions were plunged into what Ernst Jünger described as “Showers of Steel.” The optimistic hope of the constant improvement of the race by the survival of the fittest was dashed by the mindless slaughter of the fittest in the trenches of Flanders and France, on the beaches of Gallipoli.
Perhaps, when Protagoras taught, because the world was younger and the tale of human follies had not grown so long, it was possible to be optimistic about our race and its place in the scheme of things. But after nine million slaughtered, four empires toppled, epidemics, inflation, depression, and finally, after an uneasy pause of not quite twenty-one years, a resumption of the Great War, the optimism had to fade. Many would come to agree with the great philosopher of French existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, L’homme n’est qu’une passion inutile, “Man is nothing but a useless passion.”
A useless passion cannot be the measure of anything, much less of all things. How did we arrive at this extremity? Solzhenitsyn said it well in the address that was his response to Harvard’s award of an honorary doctorate, an address that made him suddenly politically incorrect, even though that term had not yet been coined: “Men have forgotten God.” And not only the males, be sure, for the noun “man” in this sense, like Latin homo and French homme, is generic and includes both sexes. Men had forgotten God before. From time to time some remembered and were revived, and their civilization was renewed. But something dramatically different is going on today. As far as the human spirit, and perhaps the human race, is concerned, it may be the first stages of “the sickness unto death.” It may not be merely that we forget God, but that we make of ourselves something that God will prefer to forget.
Status confessionis: this is when the church must take a stand if she is to be anything more than a pale memory of a more confident if naive past. That time has come. Two additional phrases will help us analyze where we are, how we got here, and to see where we will inevitably be going if the church does not stop, stand, and fight, with words of judgment and deeds of love. The first of these is this: “Begotten, not made.” The late Paul Ramsey wrote a book with the title Fabricated Man, telling of the kind of man that is made, not begotten. Readers may recognize the phrase “begotten, not made” from the Nicene Creed, where it was placed to affirm the doctrine of the full deity of the Son: “In one Lord Jesus Christ, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Begotten, not made, the Son was proclaimed as possessing the same substance as the Father, the same essence, the same nature; in other words, like the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son is proclaimed as God.
The doctrine of the Trinity, mysterious, incomprensible, too dependent on Hellenistic categories of thought as it was argued, has faded from sight among many Christians, and as it has done so, the doctrine of human dignity has suffered a similar decline. This is not a mere coincidence: human dignity, Christianly speaking, is based not only on man’s creation in the image of God, but also on the fact that the Son of God became also the Son of Man, and, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says, is not ashamed to call us brethren. The Incarnation in its full sense, as taught at Chalcedon,2 depends on being able to say “begotten, not made.” Made, not begotten, would have made the Son into a ktisma, a creature, a product and not the Son as theology understands him, not God. Made, not begotten, will make of us something other than man.
Assisted Reproductive Technology
There is no lack of human beings in the world; our numbers have trebled in this century, so that now or in the near future we may be able to say that there are more people alive on earth than the sum total of all who existed before us. But by a strange paradox, in the midst of all this natural reproduction, scientists in the advanced nations are preoccupied with “assisted reproductive technology,” named by its acronym ART. We are entering an era when we may be forced to say that coming generations of man, others like ourselves, and yet not the same, may be made, not begotten. Then they will be like us, but not—to use that Nicene word—consubstantial, not of one substance, no longer men and women that God made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). For the Son to be consubstantial with the Father, he had to be begotten, not made. For the next generation of humans to be consubstantial with us, to share our true essence, not merely our physical likeness, to be men and women like ourselves, it must be begotten, not made. If it comes to pass that the generations are made, not begotten, will they still be in the image of the One who made the first pair and told them to multiply and fill the earth? If not—and we must argue that they will not—then, by a series of short, sure steps we shall have arrived at the third slogan, the murder of God. Will that not be too late for the status confessionis, when God is murdered? Before we arrive there, we must take a stand.
Theologians know that the doctrine of the Fall of Adam, occurring in real time and real space, offers a coherent solution to the problem of evil. But this solution, unless we take the Fall as mere myth, presupposed an Adam created in the image of God. Since the triumph of Darwinism, which postulated the upward progress of living beings according to principles of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, the Fall has become nothing but mythology for most sophisticated minds. If it survives at all, elsewhere than in our somewhat obsolescent religious circles, it survives as allegory, a myth that tells an instructive story, perhaps, but nothing more. But for Christians the Fall is no allegory, and what we face today is also no allegory: the prospect of a second Fall.
On Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stands the massive and impressive main building of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kresge Hall. In a vast hall within Kresge, there is a mural, a work of art that reflects the self-confidence and the optimism of a previous generation. But it is a work of art with a strange twist. It shows a group of important men, captains of industry, statesmen, military leaders, seated around a long table and looking upward with interest and admiration bordering on reverence. Above them are two vats with wisps of smoke rising from them. Above the vats stands a man in a white laboratory coat, the man of science, his arms outstretched as though offering to the captains, the statesmen, and the generals the cornucopia that science and engineering can bring. But the bitter or bizarre twist is the inscription: Eritis sicut dei, scientes bonum et malum. Perhaps the artist assumed that engineers would not understand Latin, even in those earlier years when our academic culture had not yet declined so far, or perhaps he assumed that some would understand, and be warned, and would see that the promise was deceptive. For those were the words of the first false promise, the promise made by the Tempter to the Mother of the race: Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.
Eve was tempted and saw that the fruit was good, and to be desired to make one wise, and ate, and fell, and her husband ate and fell with her. And they came to know good and evil, to taste both the abortive pleasures and prolonged pains of sin, but not as they imagined they would. The temptation? That they would be as God. Is it possible to intensify that temptation, to make its promise greater, its threat still more perilous? “Playing God” takes on a whole new significance when we attempt actually to act as God, to do as he does. George Williams, the Hollis Professor of Divinity emeritus at Harvard, a gentle scholar, but for decades a valiant defender of the rights of the least among us, the nascituri and the morituri, the not yet born and those nearing death, spoke of a second Fall. The first Fall left us with a wounded human nature and a compromised environment; a second Fall, if such a thing is possible, threatens to leave us, or those who come after us, with no human nature at all: made, not begotten. “Free I made him,” Milton’s God the Father tells the Son, speaking of Adam, “and free he must remain, till he enchain himself.” After the first Fall, man was no longer fully free, but he was still man, and despite his flawed and fallen nature, the Christian message tells us God still loved him and sent his Son to become a man like us. If there is to be a second Fall, a new Milton might put these words into the Creator’s mouth: “Man I made him, and man he must remain, till he unmake himself.”
According to the Bible, there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. Is there that same mediator between God and not-man? God made man free, or as Milton put it, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall; else had he served necessity, not Me.” That first freedom we have lost, but some remains. Can our “guilty abuse of freedom,” to cite Paul Ricoeur’s expression, become so great that it constitutes a second Fall? Is man free to fall farther, too far to be saved? Not little falls, not the kind of missteps made and misdeeds done every day, but another Fall, a second Fall, a Fall that might do what Adam failed to accomplish and put our descendants beyond the reach of redemption? We know that it is entirely possible, at least in theory, for us to terminate human history and to ensure that there will be no more descendants to hear the Gospel, to experience salvation. We can blow up the world and take every living being with us, ending “not with a whimper but a bang.” We can do it, but we have not yet done it, and perhaps we never shall. Can we do something even worse than killing the entire race of man that God made, namely, replacing it with something quite different, making our survivors a race that God will choose to forget?
If we can conceivably end our race with a bang, and thus guarantee that there will be no future generations made in God’s image, is it so far-fetched to think that we could do it another way? Science has made it possible to destroy our world. Is it inconceivable that we could destroy not our existence, but our nature?
The Murder of God
We began with the status confessionis. Then we proceeded, via the natural expression “begotten, not made,” to consider the looming alternative, “made, not begotten.” And when that alternative becomes reality and man is made, not begotten, then we will have proceeded to the murder of God. No longer accepting our status as creatures of God, offered the possibility of adoption as his children, we will replace our race with another no longer like ours, made, not begotten, no longer of one substance with their fathers, for no one will have a father. This is the ultimate significance of cloning humans.
In recent months we have been confronting the reality of cloning mammals, and we see the possibility of cloning humans. Shall we do it? Will we do it? Shall we say, with the sad assurance of the late Jacques Ellul, “Whatever can be done, will be done”? There are numerous apocryphal Jewish legends about the prophet Jeremiah, who is portrayed as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein before his time: but a reverent Dr. Frankenstein. He made a golem, an artificial man, and inscribed on his forehead the words YHWH EMETH, “God is Truth.” The golem, summoned to life, seized the scalpel and scratched out the aleph, leaving meth: God is dead. When man makes man, the legend says, God will be dead.
The first temptation was this: Ye shall be as God. The second, and perhaps ultimate temptation, is this: “We shall do as God.” Do as God? Make man, in our image and likeness, but made, not begotten, and no longer in His image? Can that be? Perhaps not, but perhaps it can. And if the church is ever again to see herself in the status confessionis, ever again to stand up for Jesus who became man for our sakes, must it not be to forestall the danger that we will unmake man, and leave no one for the Son of Man to save?
Breaking the Image
Jesus assured his disciples that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven us. Can there be an “us” that cannot receive forgiveness? If we are ever able to manufacture artificial intelligence, to make thinking robots, would such robots be recipients of the grace of our Creator? We have not yet made mechanical robots, but we may soon be making biological ones, biological robots, as it were, cloned copies of ourselves. Because they are made, not begotten, and therefore are in our image, but not in His, will they be suitable recipients for God’s grace? Will He love our handiwork as He is said to love “the sheep of His hand”?
To have other gods before him is to falsify his image, which is specifically prohibited in the Second Commandment, or, as the Roman Catholics and Greeks count it, in the second part of the First Commandment. The covenant between God and man, graciously offered at Sinai, is violated when one substitutes a visible image, made with hands, for the uncreated light of the Deity. It is violated when one profanes the Name, it is violated when one breaks the Sabbath, exploiting the Lord’s Day for one’s own gain. And it is also broken when one violates the image of God with murder.
We humans are in the image of God; when we murder our fellow humans, we assault and insult that image as well as our fellow man. When Genesis states, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,” it gives as the reason, “for in the image of God made he man” (9:5). The pattern of destroying those who bear God’s image is no longer an exception, something done in time of war. It is set in our society; we have established the liberty to destroy the developing child, and, no longer needing devious fictions about when human life begins, our society, led by our President, abetted by our Senate and our courts, is willing even to kill the nearly-born child as it begins to emerge from the womb. We have cloaked our complaisance in smooth words, “the law of the land,” “the right to choose,” “reproductive freedom,” and the like, and we dare not say what a German high court pronounced, “The usual language, termination of pregnancy, cannot conceal the fact that abortion is a homicidal act.” We grow accustomed to the evil, as Alexander Pope wrote:
Have we already been gazing far too long? Have we not merely endured, but begun to embrace?
When we kill a man or a woman, without that very rare just cause, we destroy someone made in the image of God, and profane the image of God. Do we profane it less when we perform our homicidal act before, even just before, the infant sees the light of day? Whatever one thinks about abortion in the abstract, or in the hard cases that make bad law, it cannot be good for a nation to kill a quarter, or a third, of the next generation. And it cannot be good for a church, for any who suppose themselves to be “of good will,” to look on with idle hands and silent mouths. Should we do less than the Hebrew elders of the nearest city when a man was found in a field, murdered by an unknown hand? They were called to sacrifice a heifer and to say to the Lord, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. Forgive thy people Israel whom thou hast redeemed, O Lord, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of thy people Israel” (Deut. 21:7–8). “For blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Can we still say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it,” or is it already too late?
At Ease with Evil
Do we wonder how the German people could have become so easy with the Nazi atrocities that Daniel Goldhagen could call them Hitler’s Willing Executioners? We need not wonder. We have become easy with the million-fold homicidal act of abortion, even with the infanticidal partial birth abortion. And we are becoming easy with the merciful—or expedient—killing called euthanasia. Do you wonder how we can propose cloning, making man rather than begetting, so that we no longer want merely to be as God is, but to do as he does? If we can kill millions not merely with impunity, but with insouciance, not because of their race but because of their inconvenience, need we wonder how it was possible for a previous generation of Germans to grow easy with their own particular evil? Are we at the point described by the German poet Stefan George:
The Block of Evil
There is a constellation of forces here, a coalition, unplanned perhaps, but very natural: broken images, broken covenants, broken people. The abortion wave of the seventies is becoming the euthanasia wave of the nineties. We breed embryos for reproduction, where the natural process no longer suffices, or perhaps no longer pleases, and we discard the surplus—or we harvest them and market them. We blanche at the thought of child abuse, of teenagers who give birth in a motel and then kill and discard the baby. But is it so odd in a society that legalizes homicide? Mothers should—and generally do—protect their children, but one quarter or more of those who would be mothers arrange to have their children destroyed. Fathers should, and often would, protect their children, but they cannot, they are not allowed to if the one who should have been their even more zealous protectress wants them dead. What has become of marriage, when there are no longer privileges, but only penalties?
The covenant relationship between God and man, between God and Israel, between Christ and the church is paralleled by the most significant of all formal human covenants, the covenant of marriage. In the Old Testament, idolatry, creating a false image of God, or of false gods, is frequently paired with adultery, with “playing the harlot under every green tree.”
Do we wonder that half the marriages made each year end in divorce? Why should they not? Marriage has become a rite without rights, only responsibilities. Marriage, as the Prayer Book puts it, is an honorable estate, established by God, regulated by his commandments, honored by our Lord Jesus Christ at his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, and to be held in honor among all. But marriage, the most solemn human covenant and an image of the covenant between Christ and the church, is rendered meaningless by “choice,” devastated by divorce, and parodied by proposals for homosexual “marriage,” perhaps soon to be a reality. Our presidential philanderer collects indulgences, or rather forgivenesses, from his evangelical court jesters. Much of our population and many of our political leaders applaud: “It doesn’t matter. Let’s get on with it.” The President finds his most vigorous advocate in the politician whom older, franker language would have named a pervert and a degenerate, but who now basks in the acceptance of homosexuality, protected from reproach by the specter of “homophobia,” that code word hurled at all of those who venture to speak out in favor of the natural order, the order of being and the ordinances of God. All these things cohere, in some strange but horrible way, and constitute what Hans Millendorfer calls a block of evil. Have we already gazed too long?
Idolatry violates the image of God in one way, murder in another. Not every homicide is murder, but every abortion is a homicide. The most grotesque is only the most grotesque, but not any more a homicide, for they are all homicides. Divorce breaks marriage, the holiest human covenant; homosexuality parodies it. We have grown used to these things. Cloning, which appears just around the corner, is making man, making, not begetting. And when we begin to make man, the made man takes the aleph from his forehead and leaves only “God is dead.” We do not fear for God, friends, for God cannot die, but we must fear for man, who may seek to remake himself, and thus unmake himself, and we must fear for a church that has not yet stood up to say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it.”
1. The concept of inerrancy, derided and dismissed by liberals, remains important for evangelicals, as it is, when carefully formulated and properly understood, and for conservatives in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox camps.
2. The Chalcedonian Creed speaks of Jesus as “of one substance with the Father according to the Godhead, of one substance with us according to the manhood.”
This article was adapted from an address given by the author at the fiftieth anniversary meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, on November 21, 1998. It was first published in the January 1999 issue of The Religion & Society Report, from which it is reprinted here with permission.
Harold O. J. Brown is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte (John Richardson Chair), and editor of The Religion & Society Report. He is an ordained minister, married, with two adult children, and the author of seven books, including The Sensate Culture (Word, 1996) and Heresies (2nd ed. Hendrikson, 1998).
“Status Confessionis” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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