17 January 2015

Times of Transition and Spiritual Warfare: EW Hengstenberg (1802-69)

For those of you who haven't heard of Hengstenberg he was a German theologian and professor who in the midst of the Higher Critical movement of the 19th century stood firm in his conviction that the Biblical Text was divinely inspired and worthy of our trust. I can't agree with all of his views or actions but at his core and regarding this most essential of issues, Hengstenberg stands tall.

When I come to people like Hengstenberg, I think of how many lives were lived and battles fought by people who were unable to see the outcome. All of us are to some degree 'stuck' in our moment of time, incapable of knowing what the years and decades hold after we are gone. Some historical characters have a sense of finality to their lives, some notion of victory or defeat, even some kind of conclusion. But most of us don't. Maybe we do when it comes to our limited individual spheres... did I 'make it' in life or did I fail, that sort of thing. But as far as the struggles of life, within the realm of ideas, few of us go to the grave knowing how the chapter ends.

As Christians we see the big picture, and we know how it all will ultimately end, but none of us know just when that will be. In the meantime we labour, not to preserve nations or even cultures but to preserve and perpetuate the Kingdom of God on Earth, the Church of Jesus Christ. If we labour for anything else we're either failing to properly redeem the time and we even run the risk of being unfaithful.

I have often thought of the people who died in 2001, but before September 11. People like the spy novelist Ludlum.... how he would have been inspired by those events!... Timothy McVeigh, what would he have thought?...  or RJ Rushdoony, how would he have filtered those events into his peculiar theological understanding of American history?

I think of people who died in 1939 but before September, or people who died just before December 1941. Of course history isn't comprised of these single day events. There are the years of background leading up to them. It's interesting to think how we all live during these periods and yet do we realize it? Some of us do, to some degree, but none of us can take it all in.

Obviously we all must deal with the realities of the time in which we live and do the best we can. Part of the problem is identifying the right things to stand for, the right battles to fight. As Christians we realize the battle of ideas is our realm, and of more importance and far reaching than the battles of armies and weapons that shed blood.

Hengstenberg lived in a very interesting time. The world was changing. The 20th century world changed even more in terms of geo-politics and technology. But sometimes I wonder if we properly appreciate the profundity of the change and upheaval taking place in the 19th century? The West was finishing its conquest of the globe, great strides were being made in the realms of industry and yet for all the 'progress' there was something dreadfully wrong. There was something immoral about it all and not a few commentators realized it. There was something twisted about colonialism. Maybe some were unable to put a finger on just what the problem was? Industrialization had deep and very disturbing social consequences and there were many ideas floating about... new ways of thinking about life and man's place in the world. Nationalism was taking on a new character and other social and economic solutions were being offered which would contribute to the dismemberment and collapse of the old regimes in the 20th century. In fact we cannot properly understand the events of 1914, 1917, 1933, 1941 or 1945 apart from these ideas. All of the tremendous events that took place during those calendar years were rooted in the changes taking place in the 19th century.

In the midst of all this change, Hengstenberg lived his life and yet interestingly he devoted himself to combating the growing force of theological liberalism and seemingly made it his life's work to defend the integrity of the Biblical Text. The question must have seemed detached and obscure, even to people of his era.

In terms of worldly wisdom, we might say he lost the battle. But we're not to think as the world does. He stood for the truth of the text and because of people like him, some forms of Biblical Christianity survived on the continent of Europe. He's an inspiration for people of our generation.

What strikes me is that even though his life must have seemed like a series of defeats, he continued on. Many terrible things were to happen in the years following his death, both for Europe and for the Church.

He could have been easily distracted and pulled into labouring for this or that fight. But he chose the right battle. Somehow in the midst of the chaos of the 19th century and the maelstrom of ideas and struggles he rightly identified the most important issue, the battle which had to be fought and far exceeded any other concern. He could have even been a partisan for this or that school of theology or a certain ecclesiastical tradition. He was a devoted Lutheran to be sure, but the issue he recognized as essential was the text of Scripture. Without the Bible, we have nothing left at all. Those that cry 'Christ' and dismiss Bible and doctrine don't realize the error and folly of what they are saying. The Christ they would defend is a figment of their imagination, a creation in their own image and to their own liking. If you want to know Christ then hear the words of the Apostles who knew Him and were promised the guiding hand of the Spirit and given a Divine commission. Their words live on in the form of a preserved text.

The text if recognized as Divinely Inspired and Infallible is worth fighting for.