The Decline 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 themselves, religious Protestantism divided into multitudinous sects. Within two decades of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ending the Thirty Years War and bringing to an effective close the Reformation, Lutheranism fell into a state of sterile intellectual orthodoxy. The efforts of the Pietist movement under Philip Jakob Spener and August Francke revitalized 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 deist 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 equal rights—a veritable trumpet of jubilee—was heard throughout the world. Labor unions began to spread as in reaction to the new 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 from 1720 to 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 perceiving 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 eighteenth century found not one student admitting to a Bible believing faith. But by 1809 the tables dramatically turned, with over half the students claiming biblical faith. Decreasing once again to a low ebb in the eighteen thirties, belief in the Scriptures rebounded to a remarkable 75% among students in the seventies. Such resurgence of belief was largely due to revivalists such as Dwight L. Moody.
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. Using such devices as form and style criticism, these Higher Critics denied the literal accuracy of the Scriptures, professing the Bible to be a book of high moral principles and mythical allegories.
A growing technological explosion bred a 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 seemed smaller and the customs of primitive cultures became more known to the so-called civilized world. The nobility of some of these cultures and the contrasting hypocrisy of many in Christendom yet another philosophy came into being—Existentialism. This line of thought held that there is no absolute truth; what is true for one person may not be true for another.
The Miller movement and the development of Adventism, still another development of the 19th century, created great zeal for prophetic study on the one hand while at the same time placing it 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 this issue in an article entitled The Midnight Cry.
Into this potpourri of conflicting religious winds, 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. Briefly an agnostic himself, he understood both the forces of social inequity and the reaction to a superstitious creedal past; he saw 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 had been conjured up as the Millennium of the Bible.
Unable to sort out the confusing Babel of sounds which he was hearing in the religious world, he found it necessary to start from scratch. Striving to leave behind all his pre-conceived ideas, he embarked on a personal Bible study program that led to conclusions which substantially differed from most of his co-religionists.
The Cornerstones of Faith
The cornerstones of the Plan of God which Pastor Russell 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. If Christ died for all, then should not all benefit from it?
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 that 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 men 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.” The concept of inherent immortality conflicted with the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the dead. The hope of man is not in denying the reality of death but in the belief 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 by Christopher Bowen, and later published in 1851 in Horae Apocalypticae by E. B. Elliott, 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 there was no need to convert the world prior to the second advent. This strengthened 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 reasoning on the manner in which end-time prophecy would be fulfilled often paralleled those of the socially-conscious humanists and political reformers, even including Karl Marx. However, his vision of the future went far beyond that of the humanists; for, while foreseeing the coming of godless communism he also predicted a further step beyond that in the search for equality—the Kingdom of God.