Jesus & the Neo-Deists
Sweden’s New Civil Church Is Not an Icon of Christ but a Mirror of Man
by Folke T. Olofsson
Three years before his death in 1733, the English philosopher Matthew Tindal, one of the most important and radical English deists, published Christianity as Old as the Creation. It was certainly not the first of its kind. Already in 1669 the Irish philosopher John Toland had published a work with the provoking title Christianity Not Mysterious. The conviction brought to the fore in these books was that the Christian faith had no evidence not already to be found in the natural mind and that, therefore, every kind of revelation was unnecessary and even unjust, since it was not given to the millions who did not know of it. As for Jesus, he did not perform miracles; all he wanted was to institute a society for the promotion and practice of virtue.
The deists set out to strip the Christian faith of all its supernatural revelation on the basis of empirical investigation of nature, bringing it back to what they considered the original religion, common to all people, demonstrable by reason and useful in society through its morality. They did not think of themselves as enemies of Christianity; rather, they wanted to defend it against the attacks of atheists, but in a revised and improved version. In reality, this revision often meant the reduction of Christian belief to God, Immortality, and Virtue. What they salvaged was Religion. What they jettisoned was the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
It is easy to sympathize with the efforts of the deists, especially if one considers the religious wars that plagued Europe during the 17th century and the consequences that followed from them. What they wanted was a universal religion, accessible to everyone, practicable and practical: a universal natural religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernuft—within the bounds of reason alone—with a morality that makes no demand on man other than that he act in a way that could be elevated into a universal law. Is not the deist version of religion what every society needs and wants? Indeed, in comparison with this streamlined religion, the traditional Christian faith seems much more difficult to come to terms with.
Sweden as a Test Case
In my native Sweden, the Constantinian era has visibly come to an end through the severing of the bonds between church and state. The longtime union in which it was difficult to see where the church ended and the state began has been dissolved. Yet it is strange to see the church still united to the state in many respects, but now on the conditions of the state. It is as if the state did not dare let go of the church until it was quite clear that the latter would not embark upon a voyage of its own. The impression persists that the former national Church of Sweden, in spite of its traditional confessional basis in the Bible, the creeds, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, and the Church Order of 1571, has become a society promoting, practicing, and propagating the universal Religion—a neo-deism—rather than the catholic and apostolic faith.
This process has not come from nowhere; there has been, in the last century, before the disestablishment of the Church of Sweden, a conscious and goal-directed strategy of secularizing and dechristianizing. This process has been going on for a long time, but it has accelerated to a degree that makes one ask how long it will take before the church collapses. Some say this will not occur until church monies are gone; others say that moment may come sooner than anyone thinks.
The figures are telling. Some ten years ago, 80 percent of the Swedish population belonged to the state church. Now the percentage has fallen to 70, admittedly largely due to immigration, but still there is a notable regress. Attendance at Sunday services has gone down almost 50 percent since 1990; baptisms are at 54 percent, but only 32 percent of Swedish youth are confirmed. Ten years ago, it was more than 60 percent. Four out of ten weddings are church weddings, but the numbers of marriages are few compared to those of couples living together. Ten years ago almost 90 percent of all funerals took place in the Church of Sweden. Now it is 81 percent—an impressive number in itself, but a church does not see promise for the future in funerals.
Many church buildings are being closed, and many parishes will cease to exist because there are no worshiping congregations. There is also a financial time-bomb ticking: to become a member of the Church of Sweden, one must be baptized (earlier, it was enough to be born a Swede). Only members pay the taxes that support the churches, and the numbers of the unbaptized are growing.
Man is by nature religious, so when religion gilds and gives an extra dimension of solemnity to family celebrations without disturbing people’s lives by imposing any other demands, it is tolerated, even welcome, provided it does not cost too much. The state finds religion useful as long as it says what the state wants it to say, promotes the views and values that the state endorses, and does what the state wants it to do—in other words, as long as it becomes a civil religion instead of a Christian church, a mirror of man instead of an icon of Christ.
Even if the deist version of the Christian faith is deficient from a traditional point of view, this mode of thinking raises significant issues. The deists believed in a church as old as the creation. They wanted a church accessible to all, and they found it in man’s natural and reasonable religiosity and in the pursuit of virtue.
There are strong resonances here to Christianity itself. The deist poses questions to the Church that have to be met and answered: Is the Church as old as creation, not only in a chronological sense but in the sense of not being a foreign element but something intrinsically related to it? Is the Church for all mankind in the sense of being open to all irrespective of race, sex, nationality, or social position? Does the Church take man seriously in his fundamental identity as man, his humanum? Does the Church promote man’s moral progress and ultimate perfection?
As Old as Creation?
Yes, the Church is as old as the creation. No, the Church is not as old as the creation. Before these contradicting statements are elaborated upon and the contradiction illuminated, some words about creation must first be said. Whatever else the deists may have doubted, creation was not a problem for them as it is for modern man. God had created the world, and it worked according to divinely appointed laws. All that exists is the result of a creative act of God—this belief was considered both reasonable and natural.
But that was then. Today, all that exists is commonly considered—at least in the West—as the result of a gigantic evolutionary process which has taken place during a period of billions of years with no apparent origin, plan, or goal. All that is, including man, is a product of chance or blind evolutionary process. It cannot be taken for granted that man, through his natural reason, comes to the conclusion—which was considered perfectly reasonable before—that there is a Creator, that all there is has a divine origin and displays traces of this origin in its order and progress, and that it has a purpose and a goal. Instead, there is a tacit atheistic or agnostic assumption underlying the worldview of modern scientific man, who has become God-less in many respects.
This godlessness provides the Church with a new opportunity. God’s revelation to man can no longer be obscured by being taken for granted; thus, it can now be seen in its magnificence, and the difference this makes for man and his understanding of himself and his place in the cosmos can now be clearly discerned. All that exists is there because there is a God, and man is a result of this divine act and is a part of this design. What that means can only be learned and understood from revelation.
When the Church, however, confesses its belief in a Creator, many only hear a claim of creationism as against evolutionism, and the whole point is lost. The Church does not primarily confess anything about the when and how; its Anliegen, its concern, is the who, the why, the whence, and the whither, and what this means for me, pro me.
If one wants to understand what the Church is and what the relationship between church and people is, one has to start at the creation as revealed in the Word of God. Focusing on the creation of man, divine revelation teaches that man is not a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the apes; it clearly states that man, after an inner-Trinitarian counsel, is created male and female in the image and likeness of God. The church fathers, notably as early as Ireneus, understood image and likeness as distinct. Man is created in the image of God, imago Dei, in order to grow, as a child grows, to attain to the likeness of God, similitudo Dei, in communion with God. This process of growth was interrupted when man, in an attempt to be like God without God, stepped out of the will of God by transgressing the command, “Thou shalt not eat!”
Every word of the revealed story about the creation and the fall of man is full of meaning and is an inexhaustible source for meditation and theological reflection. What man did at his fall was not something strange and alien to his nature and destiny as man. He was meant to reach the likeness of God, knowing what was good and what was evil. But he did it prematurely, on his own conditions, leaving God out. Man wanted to be like God, autonomous and setting all limits himself, defining what was good and what was evil; he also wanted autonomy in the sense that nobody should infringe upon his freedom, as he did not want to obey anyone but himself. Total autonomy and total freedom—and that is where this project collapses. As far as his autonomy and freedom go, man is in every instant dependent on God as the giver and sustainer of life. Even man’s freedom to say no to God is conditioned upon God’s yes to man in creation and God’s sustenance of what he has created.
God created man with hunger and thirst not only for the maintenance of physical life but also for a transcending quest toward full communion with him. Only the vision of God will, in the end, satisfy man. There is a gap, an interval, a difference between what man is and what he can become, the possibility of transcendence that God gives. While his desire to be like God is a good thing, the way he tried to seize it, without God, brought disaster and changed the conditions for the realization of God’s creation counsel. The process of the growth of man from imago to similitudo Dei required something new, and this novum is the Church. The Church bridges the gap between imago and similitudo in communion with God.
The Church is, of course, not there to be seen at the moment of creation; it is in the making as an embryo, when God gives the veiled promise of the Seed who will bruise the head of the Serpent. Critical scholars do not hear in this a prophecy of the One in whom this promise will be honored, but the Church does. The early Church understood the story told in the Holy Scriptures as an oikonomia, a salvation history leading up to the incarnation of the divine Son. Theologians like Ireneus saw Christ as the new Adam, who in himself recapitulated the fate and story of man, but this time as it was meant to be: Christ being the image of God who in love and obedience fulfilled the will and consummated the counsel of God in a perfect way, thereby being like God. Jesus is the one in whom the original counsel of God in creating man was fulfilled: i.e., imago Dei reaching the similitudo Dei in communion with God. This is the locus of the Church.
The Church is not there in its eschatological fullness at the moment of creation, but it is there in God’s mind as everything is present to God in his eternal now. Nor is the Church as old as the creation in the sense that it is congruent with man’s fallen nature, but rather as something in the making, im Werden, which will help man to become what he was originally meant to be. This means that it is intrinsically connected with the creation and God’s ultimate goal for it. Thus, it is not something strange, something extra that one can live without. In Bishop Anders Nygren’s memorable words, “Kyrkan är Kristus, såsom han efter sin uppståndelse är närvarande hos oss här på jorden”—“The church is Christ as he after his resurrection is present for us here on earth” (from Kristus och hans kyrka [Christ and His Church], 1955, p. 82). If we believe in a Creator, a Savior of this creation and a Sanctifier of that which has been saved, then we also believe that there is, in a broad sense, a church as old as the creation.
For All Mankind?
The Church is universal, inclusive, for all, yes, but not on the conditions of fallen man’s religion. It is not a product of man’s religion but of God’s outreaching love and searching care for man. There is the original universality in creation—mankind derives its origin from a human couple according to the revealed story of Adam and Eve—but this universality paradoxically narrows down into a particularity in order to be universal. God’s salvific oikonomia is from the beginning universal, but then it becomes particular, focusing on individuals and their history and story in a revelatory process: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Twelve Sons, Moses, Exodus, the Law, the Covenant, the Temple, the history leading up to the virginal conception, the Virgin Birth, and the life, work, death, and resurrection of Christ, who recapitulates mankind as the New Adam, who in the end will bring all creation to the goal that God has set for it.
Through his sin, which is the Christian terminus technicus for his attempt to be like God without God, Adam in some mysterious but real way represents all mankind. Man as a sinner is a universal fact. Every human being repeats and partakes in Adam’s failure, thereby revealing man’s universal rebellion against God, his attempt to be godless or to be God himself. In this rebellion, man loses his freedom for a new bondage, that of death, sin, and the devil, the destructive and annihilating power which stands against God and his purpose for him. The result is that man, in his rebellion, steps out of the will of God and is missing the ultimate goal of his life: likeness to God in communion with him in a life that transcends the bounds of space and time. This plight is universal. But Christ as the New Adam sums up the whole creation in himself, and in Christ creation has already reached its goal proleptically, or in an anticipatory way. This is where the universality of the Church comes in. Christ is the New Humanity, and the Church is his Body.
Through faith and baptism and through the laying on of hands, man is incorporated in the body of Christ and becomes a partaker in the Spirit, present and active at the creation with the Word of God, present and active at the Annunciation and Conception of the Son, present at his baptism, active in his ministry, active in his resurrection. The Church is universal, inclusive, meant for all mankind. It has no racial, national, or sexual boundaries. Its mission is to make this universality in Christ known as the fulfillment of the divine purpose of creation. The Christian word for this is not “universality” but “catholicity.” Cyril instructs his catechumens in Jerusalem with the following words in the last of his Catechetical Lectures:
Man Taken Seriously?
Does the universality in scope—that the Church is meant for everybody—also match a universality or inclusivity of all that is human? The deists had a high view of man and the human intellect. They based their convictions on a study of that which was observable—man in his givenness. Is the Church capable of dealing with the humanum in all its forms, dimensions, and aspects, or is the Christian experience limited to a sector of human life and experience? This is the old question that the Church answered in refuting Apollinarianism:
Against the deist the Church has to say that humanness does not only pertain to the intellect: man is much more complex than that; and further, human rationality cannot solve the existential dilemma. Man’s sin disfigures, perverts, and destroys the truly human, but we can recognize in its broken forms what it was originally meant to be. In man’s hunger and thirst for more, there is also a hunger and thirst for the real, as if there were in him an echo, a memory of, or nostalgia for, something lost. He is still able to long for the real thing and to recognize it when it occurs.
Christ, being the new Adam, has a full and perfect humanity; there is nothing which he has not assumed, nothing human that he has not dealt with as one who is the image of God and who, in his being and actions, remains in an unbroken loving and obedient communion with God. Through his active and passive obedience, Jesus Christ is the Man, the true man, the embodiment of the human as it should be. What Adam missed, Christ fulfilled. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his famous refutation of Apollinaris, has given an unsurpassed formulation of the necessity of the completeness of Christ’s humanity and the inextricable relationship between the person and the work of Christ, between Christology and soteriology:
In Adam, man fell in his human totality. Christ as Mediator, Savior, Atoner, Redeemer, Perfect Man—all the titles that pertain to various aspects of his saving work—is and has done all that is necessary for man’s salvation. That God takes humanity and the humanum seriously is attested to by the incarnation and the real humanity of the Son; it is further witnessed to in the death of Christ on the cross. In betrayal, cowardice, fear, blood, sweat, tears, pain, death—that is where God in Christ is to be found. Is the Cross not proof enough that God is taking human conditions and what it means to be human seriously?
The Resurrection, as well as the virginal conception, also show the reality of the humanity of God. As something wonderful happened to the ovum in Mary’s body, so also something wonderful happened to the body of Christ at his resurrection. There is nothing left in the tomb. Nothing of the real humanum is lost. Christ is risen, and with him rises all of humanity that is worth raising up. After the Resurrection there is a continuity between the rabbi from Nazareth and the risen Lord: “Behold my hands and my feet; handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39).
There is also an eschatological dimension to the final healing and perfecting of man, since the consummation is greater than can be held by time and space—“heaven.” The ultimate goal for man is not to be swallowed up in the abyss of the divine unity; it lies in an ever deepening communion between persons, with the communion of the Trinity—in a loving face-to-face relationship—and this mystery also entails the resurrection of the flesh, the quality of the body, transformed and yet the same. The catholicity of the Church indeed means that it takes man seriously in his humanity.
Man’s Perfection Promoted?
The Church both promotes and brings about man’s moral perfection but not as a society based on his natural religion and the moral endeavors of man in his fallen state. The Church as the new humanity, the new Adam, in whom man is incorporated through baptism, and in whom man partakes of the life of the Spirit, has a much wider scope than just the perfection of man as a moral creature; it concerns the consummation of the divine plan for man: the realization of his God-given identity in communion with the Holy Trinity.
It is in Christ that man is given his perfection, his righteousness, both as imputed and as the result of an ongoing process. Through faith, man receives what is Christ’s, as a bride receives the pledge of marriage from her bridegroom. All that belongs to the bridegroom is now pledged to the bride—it belongs also to her through him.
So man receives the righteousness of Christ as an imputed gift. It is a legal term, but the point is personal: all mine is yours now; from now on, there is an unbreakable bond between us as between friends or as between husband and wife. This is as true as if it had been processed in a court of law; it has a legally binding character.
But there is not only an imputation; there is also a process going on: living in communion with God and other Christians in the Communion of Saints. This life is characterized as a daily conversion, a process of death and resurrection, which means the death of the old man and the resurrection of the new man, created in the likeness of Christ. This is a process that certainly affects man as a moral creature, and it is therefore true to say that the Church promotes and brings about the moral perfection of man.
The milieu in which this process takes place is worship: remembering and proclaiming the great deeds of God in creation and salvation through praise and thanksgiving. The Eucharist stands in the intersection where creation, redemption, and sanctification come together and meet. It is deeply symbolic when seen from the point of view of man as created, since it deals with his hunger and thirst. In the Eucharist, two strands of meaning meet in a shocking way: the eating and drinking, and the meeting and communion between persons; the Christian eats and drinks the body and blood of Christ. Eating and drinking a person! This is not cannibalism. It is the strongest possible way of expressing the fact that Christ ultimately satisfies man’s hunger and thirst, his longing for more—which is characteristic of man in his humanity—and that he does so by giving himself unconditionally in, with, and under bread and wine.
Through thanksgiving, the Church remembers what God has done. This is the anamnetic element. But in the thanksgiving for the great deeds of God, the Church also invokes the Holy Spirit to come. This is the epikletic element. The sacrifice on Golgotha is made once and cannot be repeated. What the Church does is remember this act of God again and again and, in thanksgiving at the same time, asking the Holy Spirit to come, to make this sacrifice a living reality here and now. Thus, there is a communion of people that remembers God’s wonderful works in Christ in praying for the Holy Spirit, as the Giver of Life, to come; and in this communion, something happens to man which surpasses moral progress and perfection. The Orthodox churches, in a bold phrase, talk about the theosis of man: from the image to the likeness of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit—a participation in God’s own divine life. That is what the Church is all about.
The Calling of the Church
There is no equal sign between church and people, church and nation. That era is long gone, if it ever existed. God is creating a new people from all nations—the people of God, which is the Body or Bride of Christ and the Temple of the Spirit. If we have seen at least some of the splendor of the Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—we should not make it too small. The Church is not, as in the understanding of the deists of the 18th century or the neo-deists of today, the religion of natural man, a universal society for the satisfaction of his religious needs and the encouragement of his moral improvement. If the Church is God’s means of achieving what was begun at the creation, then making it out to be just one of many partners in a doomed and petty syncretist project is selling it out.
The calling of the Church is something both finitely and infinitely greater. This calling has been expressed succinctly in Lumen Gentium I:1: “By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind. She is also an instrument of such union and unity." •
Folke T. Olofsson is docent of theological and ideological studies at Uppsala University, and is rector of Rasbo parish in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Jesus & the Neo-Deists” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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