How the West Was Lost What a Difference a Century Makes - Rev. Steve M. Schlissel

From the YEAR END 1999 issue of CHRISTIAN RENEWAL


For an enlargement of the related art work by Norm Lanting, please click on the Thumbnails below.
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In what can best be described as the gift of prophecy operating within the Reformed faith, Herman Bavinck, writing in (of all places!) the Methodist Review of November, 1901, "prophesied":

"Unless we are mistaken in our interpretation of the signs of the times, the twentieth century, upon which we have just entered,[1] is to witness a gigantic conflict of spirits. "

There was a war on the horizon, and Bavinck knew it. It was not a World War using weapons of metal that he had in view, though. It was a war of worldviews.

"Faith and unbelief, says Goethe, is the deepest theme of the history of the world. This it has been in the centuries that lie behind us. This it was in the one which we just closed and abandoned to the past. And this it will be above all things else and in an entirely special sense in the twentieth century. "

What did Dr. Bavinck mean? In what sense would the conflict of faith and unbelief be different in the century which had just disclosed itself as he wrote? Bavinck saw with a frightening clarity that the battle to be waged in what is now the century past was more comprehensive than any that had yet been fought in Christendom. Nearly 100 years later many Reformed people still seem to be blithely unaware of the breadth of the battle. Bavinck saw it beforehand; we seem to miss it even after it's done! Note well:

"This conflict is no longer confned to one or another article of our Christian confession, to the authority of Scripture or tradition, to justification or election; ,and not even any longer to the Deity of Christ or the personality of the Holy Spirit. But in the spiritual conflict which is now waging in every part of the civilized world, the points at issue more and more are the principles of Christianity itself, and the very fundamentals of all religion and of all morality. This conflict extends the whole length of the line. More serious and fiercer than ever before the conflict is between the old and the new worldview. "

Indeed, while this conflict would eventually impact every area of life, Dr. Bavinck saw it emanating from a new, or rather a newly emboldened, fundamental principle, an all embracing, world-impacting presupposition:

"For man has undertaken the gigantic effort of interpreting the whole world, and all things that are therein, in their origin, essence, and end, what is called purely and strictly scientifically, that is, without God, without any invisible, supernatural, spiritual element, and simply and alone from the pure data of matter and force. "

Bavinck, in the judgment of many (including this writer) the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, was quite aware that such a viewpoint had appeared here and there before. But he recognized in what was called "Development Theory" - or what we call today, the theory of evolution - the newly accepted organizing principle of a worldview which would go so far as to seek to understand all things, including even the soul, on purely chemical or materialistic grounds. Thus Bavinck foresaw Francis Crick (co-"discoverer" of DNA and Nobel Prize winner who would assert that the so-called "soul" is merely chemical) in his enlightened eye long before Crick's mother conceived him.


And Bavinck was not alone in explaining to us the character of the conflict that would be fought in the twentieth century. In his famous Stone Lectures of 1898, Abraham Kuyper observed that Protestant nations were becoming pantheistic. This he attributed to the "German Philosophy," but he saw its concrete form coming from Darwin. This view "claims for itself more and more the supremacy in every sphere of life, even in that of theology, and under all sorts of names tries to overthrow our Christian traditions." A victory of pantheistic Darwinism would result in "exchanging the heritage of our fathers for a hopeless modern Buddhism." For Buddhism, being entirely immanentistic - that is, entirely within the system, with no transcendent Deity - would become an acceptable sort of "religion" in the New Age.

But evolutionism was not the only foe brazenly defying Christianity. Egalitarianism, referred to by Kuyper in the Lectures as encompassed by Modernism, was/is an idea at war with Christianity and, of course, reality. It "denies and abolishes every difference [and] cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity."


To understand how these anti-Christian worldviews stood a chance of overtaking Christianity in Christian nations is not a particularly difficult problem to solve.

Bavinck, in The Certainty of Faith, had predicted with chilling accuracy exactly what would be left to those who made experience the test and essence of the faith.

For by the end of the nineteenth century, Western Christianity had already accepted the view that the Christian faith is strictly a personal matter. Gone was the Reformed - nay, even the - Roman notion that Christianity is a life system, necessarily comprehensive and embracing all of life. Individualistic Christianity, as opposed to corporate or covenantal Christianity, triumphed after the Second Great Awakening, Revivalism, and the ascent of Baptistic principles in defining the faith. Christopher Dawson has noted,

"The great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century was everywhere based on the principle of individual conversion, and this ...was marked by an introspective, psychological approach and an intensely personal view of conversion and salvation. There is a fundamental contrast between this approach and the collective or communal (i.e., covenantal] form of expression which had dominated the Christian world for upward of a thousand years. Western Christendom was not built up by the method of individual conversions. It was a way of life which the people accepted as a whole, often by the decision of their rulers, and which, when accepted, affected the whole life of society by the change of their institutions and laws. It is easy to condemn this type of corporate Christianity as superficial, external or subchristian, but at least it means that Christianity is accepted as a social fact which affects every side of life, and not merely as an opinion or a specialized group activity, or even as a hobby. "

Dawson's observation is just about all that is needed to understand how the battle foreseen by Bavinck, Kuyper and others, was bound to be lost in the West. [2] In short, Christians had surrendered the very concept of Christian culture, exchanging it for a mere experience at the altar. By redefining Christianity as consisting essentially in a spiritual experience, the Christian had left the entire civilization bare naked and up for grabs. All they asked is that space be left for their souls. Bavinck tried very hard to disabuse them of this naïveté, but they rejected his pleas.

"Even though provisionally a small domain is ...set aside for faith, this domain is bound to become ever smaller ...One fortification after another must then be sacrificed, one line of defense after another be abandoned, and one concession after another be granted."

And in that last sentence we have a description of the Christian's "tactics" in their confrontation with a very hostile worldview. Evolutionary-egalitarianism (or Egalitarian evolutionism, or just plain modern humanism) asked for the schools. "Just leave us our souls," said the Christians. "We want arts," said the enemy. "Just leave us alone in our churches." "We'll take the sciences." "Okay," said the Christians, "so long as we can preach."

"We'll take the state house." "We'll take the courts." "We'll take politics." "We'll take the family." "Okay, okay, okay," answered the church. "Just leave us our beliefs."

"No problem!," answered the humanists. "You are welcome to your sniveling, pathetic, impotent little beliefs. Enjoy them - in private!"


Culture, we were taught by Henry Van Til, "is religion externalized and made explicit." By confining religion to the internal, Western Christianity - emasculated by a triumphant Baptistic theology which made personal, inward experience the defining feature of the faith handed the culture, the entire civilization, over to whatever contender showed up. We lost by default before a punch was thrown, having conceded the entire breadth and depth of culture.

We shouldn't be surprised that, rising to the opportunity if not the challenge, anti-Christianity simply walked onto the stage and began to reshape a culture in accordance with its anti-Christian premises. Bavinck, in The Certainty of Faith, had predicted with chilling accuracy exactly what would be left to those who made experience the test and essence of the faith.

"It is a child of unbelief but harbors the secret hope of nevertheless being able to salvage some faith. It is a secret hope that science will respect the inner sanctity of the soul and leave the plant of religion to subsist there undisturbed. It concedes everything - the whole world, nature, history, and almost the whole man with his senses and perceptions memory and imagination, understanding and reason - to positivistic science, as long as it is permitted to retain a small, modest place somewhere deep in man's heart for faith. To this it surrenders bulwark after bulwark, allowing man to apply his self-emancipation and secularization even to the largest part of theology and dogmatics. In the thought of its most consistent interpreters it is left with nothing more than a few religious universal concepts."

If you want to see what that religion looks like, you may - it is here. Listen to any incumbent politician as he uses "god-words." That is the highest religion now permitted in the Public Square. Western Christianity pleaded only for the individual soul. She got what she asked for, and nothing more.

This does not mean that the Public Square has become "neutral." No! It has been overtaken by anti-Christianity. But before we treat of that, let us note from what a height the mighty have fallen. And I will confine my survey of the glorious heights of Western Christianity to one nation: America.


JANUARY 17, 2000


[1] We must forgive Dr. Bavinck for being right. Though our millennial-mad age insists otherwise, centuries, like millennia, begin in the "01" years, not the "00."

[2] Mind you, I said the battle, not the war.