The Death of Faith
“When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth.”—Luke 18:8
By Carl Hagensick
Like a mountain stream forking into two main branches, the flood waters of truth released by the Great Reformation split into two basic lines of thought.
With the Bible unchained from the pulpit and the concept of “the priesthood of all believers” encouraging Christians to interpret the Word of God for themselves, religious Protestantism divided into multitudinous sects. Within two decades of the of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ending the Thirty Years War and bringing an effectual close to the Reformation, Lutheranism fell into a state of dead intellectual orthodoxy. The efforts of the Pietist movement under Philip Jakob Spener and August Francke revitalized the Protestant movement encouraging individual Bible study and personal application of Christian principles in every situation of life.
Simultaneously the exposure of the evils of feudalism gave rise to a secular philosophy that was known as humanism. By the middle of the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau identified an agenda for the humanists with his notable work, The Social Contract. Working side by side with the noted desit, Voltaire, and influencing the writings of Carlyle, Hume and Paine, the humanists challenged the authority of government, church and the new class of capitalist overlords with religious philosophies of justice and equality.
Their writings spawned, first, the American Revolution; and subsequently the French Revolution and similar revolts throughout the former Holy Roman Empire. Hereditary ruling houses began to topple. The pulpit no longer held its dictatorial authority. A cry for eq ual rights—a veritable trumpet of jubilee—was heard throughout the world. Labor unions began to spread as in reaction to the oppressions of the Industrial Revolution.
These two streams of thought—one based on interpretational dogmatism and the other on a broad social contract—divided the Protestant church into two irreconcilable camps.
Early attempts to stem the tide of humanism, such as the Great Awakening (1720-1750) with such powerful voices as Jonathan Edwards in America, and the parallel activity of John Wesley in England sufficed only as short term stopgaps.
The founding fathers of the United States, men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, represented the humanist line of reasoning or, at best, a deism which admitted to God creating the world, but then perceived him as leaving his creation, like a broken watch, to repair itself.
Christianity Rides A Roller Coaster
A poll taken of the students at Harvard University in the last decade of the 1800’s found not one student admitting to a Bible believing faith. The tables turned dramatically by 1809, with over half of the students claiming faith in the Bible. By the 1830’s it had once again decreased to a low ebb before rebounding strongly under such revivalists as Dwight L. Moody, to a remarkable 75% of the students holding to the Scriptures in the 1870’s.
The impact of the great revivalists gave strong impetus to a world-wide missionary work with the slogan of “Winning the world for Christ in our lifetime.”
The revival of Bible believers also gave rise to systematic scholarship, developing strong research tools such as concordances and verse-by-verse Scriptural commentaries.
In the meantime other religionists, tired of denominational feuding and unable to accept the superstitious creeds of the Dark Ages, found an outlet in a new scheme of biblical interpretation—Modernism. Using such devices as Textual Criticism, these Higher Critics denied the literal accuracy of the Scriptures, believing the Bible to be a book of mythical allegories and high moral principles.
A growing technological explosion bred a more formal educational structure where students were taught to challenge the assumptions of the past and to question all previous premises.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species introduced the theory of human evolution, raising fresh challenges to the biblical account of man’s creation, fall and final destiny.
As knowledge and travel increased the world got smaller and the customs of primitive cultures became more known to the so-called civilized world. Noting the nobility of some of these cultures, and the contrasting hypocrisy of many in Christendom, influenced yet another philosophy—Existentialism. This line of thought held that there was no absolute truth, and what was true for one person might not be true for another.
The Miller movement and the development of adventism was still another development of the 19th century which created great zeal for prophetic study on the one hand, while placing the same subjects under a shadow of suspicion because of the pronounced failure of repetitive dates to produce the predicted results. This movement is examined in greater depth in another article in this issue, Behold, the Bridegroom.
It was into this potpourri of conflicting religious winds that the Bible Student movement raised its head in the late 1870’s. Charles Taze Russell, its founder, found himself challenged by the tides around him. For a short while an agnostic himself, he understood both the forces of social inequity and the reaction to a superstitious creedal past and how they naturally produced humanistic reasoning leading to socialism and communism.
Attracted by the logic and prophetic vision of Adventism, he was at the same time repelled by the dismal future of a burning earth which was conjured up as the Millennium of the Bible.
Starting from Scratch
Unable to sort out the confusing Babel of sounds which he was hearing in the religious world he decided to start from scratch. Striving to leave behind all of his pre-conceived ideas, he embarked on a personal Bible study program that led to conclusions which differed radically from those of his co-religionists.
The cornerstones of the Plan of God which he saw outlined on the pages of the Bible included:
• SALVATION FOR ALL: The simplicity of substitutionary atonement—the perfect human life of Jesus for the perfect human life of Adam and his race—showed him a hope for both the saved and the unsaved of the present time.
He perceived two aspects of salvation, one heavenly for the footstep followers of Christ, and one earthly for all others.
This concept of a kingdom teaching men the laws of righteousness answered for him the age-old question, Why would a God of love permit evil? He saw that the evil of the present life was to be a contrasting experience with the good men would experience in God’s kingdom and thus serve as an everlasting object lesson in the benefits of righteous living.
• A GOD OF LOVE: His vision of a God who had a plan for all man led him to reject the creeds of more superstitious times which envisioned a God of torture. Noting that the Bible held out immortality as a goal to be striven for (Rom. 2:7), he perceived that, as the Scriptures stated, “the dead know not anything.” It became obvious that the concept of inherent immortality did away with the Biblical teaching of the resurrection of the dead.
• THE SECOND ADVENT: His contacts with Adventism and the Miller movement proved to his satisfaction that the return of Christ was to be expected invisibly and unnoticed by men. Being convicted of the accuracy of the chronology developed in 1812 by Bowne, he believed that the Lord’s return could be dated to 1874.
• PRE-MILLENNIALISM: Again the Adventist arguments for Christ’s return before the Millennium were convincing to Russell, and therefore he felt that there was no need to convert the world prior to the second advent. This gave strength to his interpretation that the great commission of Matt. 20:28 was to be as a witness, and not for the purpose of world conversion.
• END OF THE WORLD: The intense interest in prophetic matters that was characteristic of the late 19th century also affected Russell’s theology. His insight into Scriptural prophecy was broadened, however, by his knowledge as a well-established businessman, of the workings of economics. Therefore his reasonings on the manner in which end-time prophecy would be fulfilled often paralleled those of the socially-conscious humanists and political reformers, such as Karl Marx. In fact, his vision of the future went beyond that of the humanists; for, while foreseeing the coming of communism he also predicted a further step beyond that in the search for equality—the Kingdom of God.
We will not here discuss the manner in which the new Bible Student movement reacted to the Christian community around it. That is the subject of a subsequent article in this issue, In the Time of Harvest.
It was thus that these two broad streams of humanism and Protestant denominationalism, diverse as they were, contributed to the removal of a unified faith in the Bible’s message. It was thus, also, that the vision which Charles Taze Russell had of God’s Divine Plan of the Ages was designed to restore just such a unified belief to those whose faith could accept it.