The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Magnetism of Pragmatism

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The idea of pragmatism is a distinctly American phenomenon. Wearied by endless speculations and discussions of transcendence and metaphysics, William James and John Dewey popularized a philosophy of “whatever works.” This philosophy has become such a part of the American mentality that it is even driving the “theology” of the Christian church in this country. One doesn’t need to look very hard to find the pragmatic aspects that are inherent in compromise views such as theistic evolution, church growth, and liberal theology, just to name a few. None of these positions would be seriously entertained independent of the pressures that our modern culture imposes on the biblical text. But Christians are not called to make peace with their surrounding pagan culture by any means necessary. Christians “must be presuppositionally committed to Christ in the world of thought (rather than neutral) and firmly tied down to the faith which he has been taught, or else the persuasive argumentation of secular thought will delude him. Hence the Christian is obligated to presuppose the word of Christ in every area of knowledge; the alternative is delusion.”[1]

Presupposing God’s Word is not a popular notion in today’s evangelical circles though. Even a cursory read through Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided will show this to be the case. Murray documents in great detail how pragmatism has influenced decisions that were made and directions that were taken by various denominations and factions of the 20th century Christian church. Last Sunday, many churches around the country celebrated “Evolution Sunday,” despite the clear teaching of God in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, John, Colossians and many other places in Scripture. These “theistic evolutionists” are willing to chuck the Bible in the foundational area of origins in order to reach across the table and shake the hand of the atheistic materialist. This one-way relationship plays right into the hands of the atheist. The Christian has everything to lose and the atheist has everything to gain. The pragmatist loses far more than simply a debate over origins. The evolutionist concedes nothing to the Christian, but the Christian gives away the entire Bible in one fell swoop. A high price to pay for a seat at the science symposium.

The “church growth” movement is another area that modern American Christianity is falling prey to the pragmatic. The unstated supposition is, of course, that a mega-church of two or three thousand members is somehow more to be desired than a small church of 100 members. The church growth pragmatist always takes this as a given; he believes it’s an evident sign of God’s blessing if people are beating a path to his church door. Maybe, maybe not. The fact of the large numbers are perceived to be God’s stamp of approval on the methods, ministry and message of the church growth pragmatist. But, “all of that is illusory. Facts never told anyone what to do. Facts are always interpreted according to principles and values, and the pragmatist hides his, possibly even from himself. The ethical result of this is worse than the means being justified by the end, because the pragmatist explicitly elevates means over ends; the means justify themselves.”[2] Completely abandoning discipleship and accountability in favor of a “multimedia worship experience” or a polished 20-member praise band, the church growth pragmatist must continue to defend his “bigger is better” belief. He presupposes the truth of his belief and acts in accordance with it.

The liberal theologian must do the very same thing. They believe that our enlightened, advanced culture can’t be expected to accept what an agrarian, desert-dwelling, primitive culture believed to be true. They would argue that their beliefs and values were every bit as pragmatic for them as ours are for us today. Liberal theology caves in on itself. You can’t only take the parts of the Bible that you agree with as true. If the Bible is true at all then it must be true in all, otherwise man is the measure (and measurer) of all things. Once the liberal theologian puts the Bible on trial, man, not God, becomes the final authority. And if man is the final authority, then why bother with the Bible at all? It makes no sense. Liberal theology is pure humanism turned inside out. Kenneth Scott Latourette was prophetic when he stated that:

Partly because of the mounting percentage of the population which is enrolled in the churches, there is danger that the Christianity of the country will be an expression of ‘the American way of life’ and will become ancillary to it…As millions are drawn into the churches, discipline is relaxed and the local congregations tend to become social organizations with a religious tinge, only slightly unlike the many “service clubs” and fraternal orders which flourish in the American scene.[3]

Christians today have gotten so disoriented in their pragmatic worldviews that God’s Word is consulted (if at all) only after expedient decisions have already been made. We forget that our religious commitment is to inform our political decision-making and not the other way around. We are Christians first, not conservatives. Many conservative decisions are being made by full-fledged libertarians who are no more committed to God’s Law than they are to man’s. Their version of pragmatism is being adopted part and parcel by well-meaning Christians and is becoming the tapestry of their worldview. And if we don’t start with “the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7),” then this libertarian ethic is all we have left. This must stop. Just like Colonel Nicholson at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Christians need to look upriver at the magnificent bridge that they have built and ask, “What have we done?” “Is this really the legacy that we want to leave?”


[1] Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 5. See also Proverbs 1:7.
[2] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 49-50.
[3] Kenneth Scott Latourette, Challenge and Conformity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955), 85.

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