Zeitgeist: A typically compound German word that conveys something that is more cumbersomely articulated in English—“the spirit of the time.” All of us are, to some extent at least, influenced by the thinking patterns of the times in which we live—either by being unconsciously swept up into them, or by reacting against them. It is always striking to me to what extent the thought patterns in our lives are governed by the agenda set by television, radio, internet, and Hollywood. The latest tragedies, celebrities, political talking points and heavily biased news reporting dominate our thinking and discussions about current events.
Not only this, but the worldviews and paradigms of those who are creating the TV shows, movies, and news stories are being continuously fed into our minds. For example, when people in the news or TV speak of a story that involves “the triumph of the human spirit,” or when characters in films encourage someone to “follow your heart,” they are exhibiting the philosophical outlook of humanism—the idea that human beings and their own inner capacity for enlightenment are sufficient for meaning, purpose, and ultimate progress. When people speak or write of the “offensiveness” of disagreeing with strongly held religious ideas and lifestyles of others, or when it is said that this is “unloving” since we “all worship the same god,” they are conveying what has been called postmodern pluralism—the idea that each person’s ideas of truth and meaning are equally valid because there is no absolute truth to be known. What matters most in this view are community, pluralism, and diversity. The question of what ideas are right or wrong (such categories are viewed as being inappropriate for religious discussion) is not nearly as important as one’s personal sincerity.1
In many academic circles, materialistic scientism, an idea that has matured since the 18th century Enlightenment, has dictated that science is the only way to know what is true, and that religion is relegated and reserved for the world of personal emotions and faith communities. It is seen as acceptable to debate things like foreign policy, economics, immigration, and gun control, but not whether Christianity is true and Islam is false. These ideas, though begun in the universities, eventually affect all of us. Accordingly, especially in the West, when it comes to almost everything in life such as finances, relationships, health, sports, significant purchases, etc., we consult experts, do research, read manuals, and search the internet, spending many hours in the process. But when it comes to the most important questions of life, meaning, salvation, and their ethical and practical implications for how we live and worship, we rely instead upon feelings, intuitions, and relationships while our Bibles and other helpful books on these matters remain untouched, collecting dust.
The cognitive and rational emphasis of previous “modernist” generations in the 20th century did not occur in a vacuum any more than did our current cultural moods. For people who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, there was very little time or capacity to rely upon feelings, relationships, and community when friends and loved ones were suffering and dying daily. What mattered most was what transcended the daily reminders of the transitory nature of life—reliable truth. People’s “felt needs,” their emotional health, and their personal comfort in relationships had very little to do with surviving the hellish realities of war and national catastrophe.
On the other hand, the postwar boom of prosperity in the 1950s led to a generation that had the leisure to consider questions of personal meaning, emotional health, fulfillment, and self-esteem. It is this ethos of the cultural revolution of the 60s that has largely given us the current zeitgeist and its emphasis upon these very ideas of individual fulfillment. As will be shown below, not all of the changes have been bad, either for society or for the church. But neither have all the changes been good. For the remainder of this article, I would like to focus upon one aspect of the zeitgeist that has been enormously influential in Christianity, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church: the “head-heart” (false) dichotomy.
I would be a very rich person if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen or heard phrases like these in the last 15-20 years—from both pastors, seminarians, and laypeople:
- “We need heart knowledge, not just head knowledge.”
- “It’s not what you know, it’s Who you know.”
- “We don’t need more doctrines, we need Jesus.”
- “Doctrine divides, community connects.”
- “We shouldn’t argue over doctrine; we should love one another.”
- “I love Jesus, but hate ‘organized religion.’”
What these comments evince is the heavy influence of the zeitgeist. The basic idea is that people and their feelings are at least as important, if not more so, than seeking doctrinal clarity and scriptural truth, and that Jesus can be known apart from Bible study. These sentiments comport quite well with the Pentecostal de-emphasis of doctrine and a strong focus on internal, personal experience and the “relationship with God” mediated through the “Spirit.” It is surely no coincidence that Pentecostalism has increased in both numbers and influence during this most recent period in history.2
But these kinds of mood swings are nothing new in Christianity. The scholastic, cerebral Protestantism that followed the Reformation was eventually reacted against by the swing over into personal experience and emotion in what was called Pietism.3 This in turn was reacted against by Deism and eventually Fundamentalism,4 and on and on has the pendulum swung back and forth and continues to do so. Knowing where we are in history helps us, at least to some degree, to gain needed perspective, and, with the help of Scripture—which speaks with clarity to all times and places—to embrace the good, repudiate the bad, and avoid the ever-present temptation to fall into overreactions and extremes.
Let’s examine those (false) dichotomies mentioned above, e.g. “We need heart knowledge, not just [or sometimes, “rather than”] head knowledge.” It is not entirely clear what is meant by this saying, but the following seems to convey the gist of it: Christianity should not consist of mere doctrinal theories, but rather of personal experience and emotion as well. Taken in this way, this idea is certainly consistent with Scripture. “O taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!” (Ps. 34:8). “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). “Blessed are the pure in heart [not just theology], for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom” (Ps. 51:6).
However, the popular sayings quoted above evince two underlying false and extremely damaging presuppositions. First, they imply that there is no real and inevitable connection between what we believe from our Bible study and what we experience in our lives. They seem to imply that cognitive, doctrinal material is merely theoretical, and that it needs to be supplemented with something more practical and emotional—“heart knowledge”—or that “doctrine” and “Jesus” are not necessarily connected, that the latter can be known independently of the former. Second, as time has gone on, what may have originally been intended in these phrases to be a corrective against a certain dry way of teaching doctrine has actually become a very problematic imbalance, such that feelings, relationships, personal intuition, and a perceived “voice of the Spirit” have become far more important in spiritual life than scriptural knowledge and study. As several studies in the last decade have shown,5 personal intuition and feelings have taken the place of Bible study to a large degree in many Christian churches, including the Adventist church.6
First and foremost, it is helpful to notice that the biblical words for “heart” (לֵב and καρδίαin, the respective Hebrew and Greek) do not simply connote emotions, but rather encompass the whole inner life—intellect, character, wisdom, emotions, and attitudes. (See Ex. 31:6; 1 Sam. 10:9; 1 Kings 3:9, 8:23; Prov. 10:8; Matt. 18:35; Luke 16:15; 2 Cor. 5:12; 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:4). In this regard, “mind” is often really the best translation for these words. According to many Scripture passages, how we think in our “hearts” is directly related to how we live. And contrary to the humanistic slogans cited above to “follow your heart;” to do so according to the Bible is utmost folly. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt 15:19). “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). “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” (Rom 8:7). The purpose of the new birth is to give us a “new heart” (Ps. 51:6, 10), but even in a converted Christian, there is a continual struggle between our inborn sinful inclinations and those of our new life. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal 5:16-17; see also Rom. 7).
Ellen White noted the deep connection between doctrine and practice: “The truth and the glory of God are inseparable; it is impossible for us, with the Bible within our reach, to honor God by erroneous opinions. Many claim that it matters not what one believes, if his life is only right. But the life is molded by the faith” (The Great Controversy, p. 597). And it really is not possible to divorce Jesus from doctrine. We would not know very much about Jesus were it not for the teachings of the Bible. Jesus is not simply a personal mental construct or individual emotional stabilizer; He is the God who lived, taught, and inspired Scripture in history. Knowing the truth about Jesus is essential for salvation. “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” This truth is found in His Word—“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” John 8:32.
I’ve often used the following illustration to encapsulate the issue: Picture a dialogue between a zeitgeist-enveloped person of today with the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther: “Dr. Martin, why all of this fuss over justification by faith? This is causing consternation and division. Can’t we all just get along without making such a big deal over doctrine? And surely it is going too far to call the pope the antichrist. This is most certainly quite unloving and offensive.” We have forgotten that it is ideas and doctrines that have changed the world. Luther’s biblical concepts of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace alone and Christ alone have changed everything—from church to government to individual believers’ assurance of salvation. What if we asked his namesake Martin Luther King Jr. if the idea and theology of racial equality was merely theoretical? What if we asked the Jews of the Holocaust if the ideas of Aryan superiority and Jewish denigration were merely theoretical? I could go on. Christ’s apostles changed the world forever through their theology.
It has often been said that the Pharisees knew their doctrines well, but they still killed Jesus. But this is not the case at all. Jesus did not just rebuke the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees for their deeds, but also for their wrong theology. He kept asking them, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10). What we need is not less doctrine, but rather more of it, and with more accuracy. If we are neglecting “practice” and people, dwelling too much on “theory” or too much on intellect rather than emotion, this in itself is evidence of bad doctrine. Good doctrine always addresses real life in a comprehensive way—the Bible itself, its doctrine, is eminently practical. We do not, as is so often said, have to make the Bible relevant to all of life. It already is.
The current zeitgeist is an overreaction to what has preceded it. It is certainly a good thing that some changes have occurred in the ways in which we teach doctrine. We are integrated beings. God does care about our emotions (e.g. Ps. 34:18) and relationships (e.g. Eph. 5-6). Over and over again we are called upon in Scripture to rejoice in the Lord and to have a personal experience with Him. The stories in the Bible involve interactions with God in real-life situations, not only propositional instruction. It was certainly wrong for previous overly rationalistic approaches to our faith to ignore people and their feelings in the process of sharing and inculcating truth. This “take it or leave it” attitude with its cramming of ideas and lack of compassion is what has led people to overreact with this equally if not more problematic idea that doctrines are not important, but only being kind and loving. Jesus emphasized both truth and kindness in His life and teachings.
Christ Himself did not suppress one word of truth, but He spoke it always in love. He exercised the greatest tact, and thoughtful, kind attention in His intercourse with the people. He was never rude, never needlessly spoke a severe word, never gave needless pain to a sensitive soul. He did not censure human weakness. He fearlessly denounced hypocrisy, unbelief, and iniquity, but tears were in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes. The Desire of Ages, p. 353.
Postmodern zeitgeist has, at the very least, served to remind us to be humble in recognizing mysteries and that in fact we all “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). But as so often happens, we have gone way too far in overreaction. Biblical illiteracy is at alarming levels, and the results are seen everywhere: moral decision-making without consulting Scripture; ending of marriages for unbiblical reasons because of being “unfulfilled”; leaving the church because of “not getting anything out of it” or because of hurt and dysfunctional relationships. If our faith is based on personal fulfillment, feelings or relationships, our commitment will last only as long as these things are stable, which is to say that it will not last at all.
The alarming number of our youth who leave the church is often attributed to a lack of love and relationships. In reality, it is due far more to their not knowing what they believe and why they believe it. Certainly they need both sound doctrinal understanding and love. But young people can find entertainment, love, relationships, and fulfillment in many places other than church, and in many cases to a much higher degree. But what they cannot find anywhere else is the truth of the gospel lived and experienced in a body of believers that will stand firm when all else falls around it (Matt. 7:24-27). Humans will fall, be hypocritical and fickle, but God’s Word will remain forever (Isaiah 40:7-8).
The reason why the youth, and even those of mature years, are so easily led into temptation and sin is that they do not study the word of God and meditate upon it as they should. The lack of firm, decided will power, which is manifest in life and character, results from their neglect of the sacred instruction of God’s word. . . .The truths of the Bible, received, will uplift the mind from its earthliness and debasement. If the word of God were appreciated as it should be, both young and old would possess an inward rectitude, a strength of principle, that would enable them to resist temptation. Testimonies to the Church, vol. 8, p. 319.
We can have a rock which can withstand all contingencies. “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10). Throughout David’s emotional changes in the Psalms, he continued to trust in God regardless of how he felt. “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You” (Psalm 56:3). In the book of Genesis, throughout one dysfunctional relationship after another, God revealed Himself to the patriarchs and sustained them by His grace. God wants for us to have good relationships; He wants us to have joy; but in a fallen world, He has promised us that there will be difficult times and negative emotions. The book of Ecclesiastes shows that so many things in our lives are in reality ephemeral vapor. Our possessions, legacy, achievements, pleasures—none are sure foundations. Jesus, while going through the experience of Gethsemane and the cross, felt completely abandoned by both God and humans. He had neither positive feelings nor strong relationships. Yet He maintained His trust based upon what He knew to be true, “by faith alone.”
Faith and hope trembled in the expiring agonies of Christ because God had removed the assurance He had heretofore given His beloved Son of His approbation and acceptance. The Redeemer of the world then relied upon the evidences which had hitherto strengthened Him, that His Father accepted His labors and was pleased with His work. In His dying agony, as He yields up His precious life, He has by faith alone to trust in Him whom it has ever been His joy to obey. He is not cheered with clear, bright rays of hope on the right hand nor on the left. All is enshrouded in oppressive gloom. . . . Denied even bright hope and confidence in the triumph which will be His in the future, He cries with a loud voice: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” Testimonies to the Church, vol. 2, p. 210.
While we are not called upon to endure what Jesus did, there is a lesson in this for us. We can know that we are God’s children, that Jesus is our divine Savior, and stand firm on the basis of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1)—Christ gives His covering and transforming righteousness to those who believe in Him. This alone is our firm foundation, not personal fulfillment or relationships—these can be found anywhere. Buddhists have marriage and financial seminars too. Deep committed relationships occur in gangs. Mormons feel the “burning in the bosom.” But these are not reliable rocks to build upon. Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, did not give the disciples a striking revelation of Himself until He had given a massive Bible study.
It was His purpose to enlighten their understanding and to fasten their faith upon the “sure word of prophecy.” He wished the truth to take firm root in their minds, not merely because it was supported by His personal testimony, but because of the unquestionable evidence presented by the symbols and shadows of the typical law, and by the prophecies of the Old Testament. It was needful for the followers of Christ to have an intelligent faith, not only in their own behalf, but that they might carry the knowledge of Christ to the world. Christ in His Sanctuary, p. 73.
The disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” The real “burning in the bosom” comes from studying the Word of God. While some of the emphases and corrections of our zeitgeist are important, Scripture indicates that what we know by faith and revelation in Scripture concerning Christ (though it certainly affects our emotions and relationships deeply) is more significant and solid than anything else we have in this world. If we want to know Christ, we must know His Word (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44-46). God builds the assurance in our “hearts” through our knowing this surety. “We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19).
My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less (Edward Mote, 1834)
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood
Supports me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in Him be found!
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
1. Suffice it to note that this viewpoint is eminently incoherent. The radically different claims of religions such as Christianity and Islam, or even the claims within various Christian denominations, absolutely preclude any ideas of relativism. Either Jesus is God, as Christians claim, or He is not. Either Mary is an immaculate “Mediatrix” or she is not.
2. http://marccortez.com/2014/04/16/growth-global-pentecostalism-wheaton-theology-conference-4/ and http://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/pentecostal-resource-page/
3. This was propagated by people such as Zinzendorf, Spencer, and eventually Schleiermacher, the founder of liberalism. See Justo Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, vol. 2 (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 259-273.
4. See Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christianity, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 473-493, 518-570.
5. See e.g. http://www.americanbible.org/uploads/content/state-of-the-bible-data-analysis-american-bible-society-2014.pdf, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010#.U9gpCLFeJLw, 33 and Colin Hansen, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” Christianity Today May 24, 2010. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html?start=1, http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective?q=biblical+literacy
6. Barbara Fisher, “Promoting Biblical Literacy in the Elementary Classroom,” Prepared for the 33rd International Faith and Learning Seminar held at Helderberg College, South Africa January 30 – February 11, 2005. http://www.aiias.edu/ict/vol_33/33cc_077-096.pdf