By Apprising Ministries special correspondent Bob DeWaay

Church history tells us that the charge pietistic reformers level against the church is that the church practices “dead orthodoxy.” Some years ago I hosted a pastor’s meeting at which pastors could discuss theological ideas. Position papers were presented and then critiqued by the group. Some of the pastors came from the Charismatic movement (also pietistic). A common theme from the Charismatic pastors was their distain for doctrine. Because theirs was a reform movement, they were fighting “dead orthodoxy.”

I spoke after one of our meetings with a pastor who told me that when he was a Lutheran, reciting creeds and doctrines caused him to be spiritually dead. I responded, “So believing that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, who lived a sinless life, who died for sins and was raised on the third day and bodily ascended into heaven killed you spiritually?” He said, “I didn’t really believe those things.” He had assumed that the cause of his unbelief was not sin, but a church that recited creeds. I believe that it is much better to preach those doctrines from the pulpit and call for people to repent and turn to Christ than to make recitation part of a liturgy. But nevertheless the creeds were not the problem, unbelief was.

Christian orthodoxy simply means holding to the true beliefs revealed in Scripture. These beliefs are often systematized as topical teachings such as the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of justification, and so on. Genuine faith in the truth of the gospel is saving faith. No one having saving faith is “dead.” In Ephesians 2:1-8 Paul teaches that we were dead, but that God made us alive, and that He did so by grace through faith. It is also true that where genuine saving faith exists, it produces evidence in the lives of those who have it as Paul asserts in Ephesians 2:10. So when James says that faith without works is dead, he refers to something other than the type of faith that Paul says is a work of grace. It is the type of faith demons have (see James 2:17-19). In the gospel of John, John uses the term “believe” in two ways.[1] There are those, for example, who “believed” in John 8:30 but when confronted with their need to be set free began to debate Jesus and later accused him of sin (see John 8:31-47). Jesus told them they were definitely not from God. But in many other places in John those who believe are true believers who have eternal life.

My conclusion is that “dead orthodoxy” is orthodoxy that people might fight for because of parochial reasons (“this is our tradition and no one is going to change it”) but in which they put only mental assent faith. I gave mental assent to creeds when I was 12 years old because it was my duty to join the church at that age; but I was a dead sinner. But it most assuredly was not the truth contained in the creeds that killed me; it was my unbelief. Those “believers” in John 8 proved themselves to be unbelievers by refusing to become Jesus’ disciples, learn the truth, and be set free.

Pietism misdiagnoses the problem and creates a false solution. It sees a compromised church that is apparently caught in dead orthodoxy. The real problem is not dead orthodoxy but spiritually dead sinners who give mental assent to orthodox truth but show no signs of regeneration. If indeed such a church existed (if truth really is there God has His remnant there as well), that church would be characterized by worldliness and sin. This is the case because dead sinners do not bear spiritual fruit. There was a church in Revelation that Jesus called “dead.” Pietism that holds to the true gospel but goes beyond it imagining that the dead sinners who are church members are Christians. When some of them become regenerate through the efforts of the pietists, they assume they have now entered a higher class of Christianity. They posit two types of Christian: “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians. But in reality there are only Christians and dead sinners.

Furthermore, pietism sees the lack of good fruit in the “dead orthodox” churches to be a sign that teaching doctrine is of no value and that what really matters is practice and not doctrine. So they gravitate to works righteousness. This is precisely the mode of the Emergen Church. It has been the approach of pietists throughout history. But works that do not result from a prior work of grace (which is the result of God’s work through the gospel to convert dead sinners) are in fact “dead works” no matter how pious they look. Mother Theresa did good works but denied the exclusive claims of the gospel. That “piety” is of no eternal value if those who were the recipients of the good works never hear or believe the gospel and thus end up in hell.

God’s revealed truth is never dead, but sometimes it falls on dead ears. In John 6 multitudes who were interested in following Jesus for bread left Him when He spoke the truth to them. The few who did not have dead ears were asked if they would leave too. Peter answered for the group: “Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:68, 69). Genuine faith like that is not the domain of higher order pietists who learned the secrets of the deeper life, it is characteristic of every one of Christ’s true flock who ever exists. Pietists think that adding some man made process to what Christ has provided for all Christians throughout the centuries can cure a problem that never existed: being “dead” because of believing the truth. Instead of a cure, they create an illness as they lead people away from the finished work of Christ.

Pietistic Misuse of 1Corinthians

The favorite proof text for pietists of all sorts has been this passage: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1Corinthians 3:1 KJV). I cite the KJV because that is where the term “carnal” as in “carnal Christian” came from. In my early pietist days, as I said, I was influenced by Watchman Nee. He made a strong point about a passage just before this verse: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man” (1Corinthians 2:14, 15). The word “natural” from the Greek is literally “soulish.” Nee used that as proof for his anatomical sanctification scheme. In that scheme, the spiritual man is one whose soul is inclined to the spirit (i.e. their spirit as joined to the Spirit) rather than to the external world through the body. My other early teacher, Kenneth Hagin, had a similar teaching but it was based on the idea of following one’s spirit rather than what he called “sense perception” (lying symptoms that you were sick when God said you were healed for example). The result of these teachings is a two tiered schema for the church: the carnal Christian and the spiritual Christian. In pietism there is always a process that leads to an experience that brings one into the more favorable category.

But was Paul teaching that some Christians are actually not spiritual but carnal or “soulish”? I used to think so until I read Gordon Fee’s excellent commentary on 1Corinthians. The “carnal Christian” teaching fails to take into consideration the larger context of Paul’s letter. The “natural man” who does receive the things of God on the ground that he thinks them “foolish” is not a carnal Christian, but a person who has rejected the gospel. This can be seen by Paul’s prior use of “foolish” in chapter 1: “but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25). The lost who are not “the called” are the ones who consider the message of the cross “foolish.”

Furthermore, 1Corinthians 2:14 teaches complete inability, not merely a lack that is only due to not having the right teaching. In the pietist scheme of things, the carnal Christians could remedy their problem if they would only adopt the teachings and practices promoted by the pietists. But the Greek of 1Corinthians 2:14 literally says that the natural man is “ou dunatai gno_nai” not able (i.e. without power) to know. He cannot know because he is unregenerate, he does not have the Holy Spirit. Believers have the Holy Spirit, unbelievers do not. The natural man is an unbeliever, not a carnal Christian. Paul makes this clear in Romans:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Romans 8:5-9)

In Romans it is made explicitly clear that those who are “fleshly” and “without power” (the same word as used in 1Corinthians 2:14 – dunamis) to serve God, obey God, or please God are not Christian. They are not carnal Christians, they are lost in sin.[2]

Gordon Fee points out that this section in 1Corinthians has been subjected to misuse for a very long time:

This paragraph has endured a most unfortunate history of application in the church. Paul’s own point has been almost totally lost in favor of an interpretation nearly 180 degrees the opposite of his intent. Almost every form of spiritual elitism, “deeper life” movement, and “second blessing” doctrine has appealed to this text. To receive the Spirit according to their special expression paves the way for people to know “deeper truths” about God. One special brand of this elitism surfaces among some who have pushed the possibilities of “faith” to the extreme, and regularly make a “special revelation” from the Spirit their final court of appeal. Other “lesser” brothers and sisters are simply living below their full privileges in Christ. Indeed, some advocates of this form of spirituality bid fair to repeat the Corinthian error in its totality.[3]

The great irony is that those who find a hyper-spirituality doctrine in 1Corinthians are falling into the very error Paul wrote to correct, as Fee so eloquently pointed out. If you have been subjected to pietistic teachings of one form or another, I urge you to buy Gordon Fee’s commentary that I cite here and read it. It was very instrumental in helping me find my way back to the truth.

But you may be thinking, “Paul did call the Corinthians ‘carnal’ did he not? So how can you say there are no ‘carnal Christians’?” That is a very good question. The answer is found in Paul’s use of irony. Some of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible are misunderstood when an ironic statement is taken to be literal. Another example is the passage in Revelation 3 where Christ is standing at the door knocking. This is an example of irony—Christ on the outside of His own church seeking to come in for table fellowship when the table fellowship of the church is supposed to be all about Christ! But not seeing the irony, people take this as an evangelistic passage and teach that the sinner has to open the door or Jesus will be stuck outside.

Similarly, when Paul says to the Corinthians that they are “carnal” (1Corinthians 3:1) he is issuing an ironic rebuke! They were the ones listening to the “super apostles” who suggested Paul was not spiritual like they were. The Corinthians prided themselves in their supposedly superior spirituality. Paul said that true spirituality was always centered on the cross, not the wisdom of men. The Spirit’s work in our lives is because of the cross. But the Corinthians were thinking and acting like unbelievers, i.e. the “carnal.” Again, Fee helps us:

First, picking up the theme of being “spiritual” from what has just preceded, Paul makes a frontal attack and pronounces the Corinthians as not spiritual at all. Indeed, they are just the opposite: they are “fleshly”—still thinking like mere human beings, those who do not have the Spirit. With this charge Paul exposed himself to centuries of misunderstanding. But his concern is singular: not to suggest classes of Christians or grades if spirituality, but to get them to stop thinking like the people of this present age.[4]

So Paul’s use of irony to rebuke the Corinthians is interpreted as literal in order to set up an elitist version of Christianity which is the very thing the Corinthians did that Paul was rebuking. (source)

End notes:

  1. Ryan Habbena’s article Formulating a Theology of pistueo_ (believe) in John’s Narative:HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/SCHOLARLY/SCH007.HTM published at cicministry.org under“ARTICLES/SCHOLARLY.”
  2.  See Gordon Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians” in The NewInternational Commentary on the New Testament; (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1987) 115 – 120 for an excellent scholarly discussion of what Paul means by the “natural man.” It is noteworthy that Fee is a Pentecostal and as such belongs to a denomination that tends to pietism; but Fee warns against such interpretations of 1Corinthians.
  3.  Ibid. 120.
  4.  Ibid. 122.

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