A Tale of Two Richards

Posted on February 5, 2013

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This is a tale of two Richards: George Richards and Richard Rohr. George Richards was a minister in the Reformed Church in the USA in the late teens/early twenties of the last century. He was the chairman of the American Council on Organic Union, what became the twentieth-century ecumenical movement. Richard Rohr is a present-day Franciscan friar and ordained Roman Catholic priest, “…a recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within mystical and transformational traditions” (from his website). They are separated by about a century, and both are absolutely convinced that Christianity is first and foremost a lifestyle.

Interesting that – both Richards are convinced that they have captured the problem and both Richards offering the same solution.

In 1921 J. Gresham Machen wrote this concerning George Richards view of Christianity as a lifestyle:

If that be true, then God help us! We are then still in our sins. If Christianity is a life, if we have to appeal to our lives, then we are of all men most miserable. For our lives are sinful. But, thank God, Christianity is not a life, but a life founded upon a message, an account of the blessed act of God by which the Lord Jesus Christ took our place and died for our sins once for all on the cross. If so, the Book of Acts is correct; the business of the church is a campaign of witnessing. But if the organized church accepts the programme of the new plan of union, under the lead of Dr. Richards, it is engaging in an anti-Christian propaganda; wherever its mission may extend it is giving men a false answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”

—Quoted by Ned Stonehouse: J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. OPC, rpt. 2004. p. 264.

What has struck me in reading the two Richards is the way in which even after a century that separates the two men, the same critique (Christianity is not a message, a teaching, a doctrine) and the same solution is offered (Christianity is a lifestyle). It leads me to ask: one hundred years later, has Christian liberal theology learned nothing from the bloodiest century that separates these two men? Does Christian liberal theology really have anything left to say? If it didn’t get it right in 1914, then it won’t get it right in 2013. How many more years must we give over to the “jury being out” on the failed liberal experiment?

  • Christianity is not first and foremost a mode of behavior.
  • Christianity is first and foremost a message that is to be believed.
  • If one believes that message, that belief will affect ones behavior.
  • But if you begin with the behavior, you will never get to the message.

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) agrees:

To join the outcry against dogma and fact means to lower the ideal of what the Christian consciousness ought normally to be to the level of the spiritual depression of our own day and generation.

How much better that we should all strive to raise our drooping faith and to re-enrich our depleted experience up to the standard of those blessed periods in the life of the Church when the belief in Bible history and the religion of the heart went hand in hand and kept equal pace, when people were ready to lay down their lives for facts and doctrines, because facts and doctrine formed the daily spiritual nourishment of the souls.

May God by his Spirit maintain among us, and through our instrumentality revive around us, that truly evangelical type of piety which not merely tolerates facts and doctrines, but draws from them its strength and inspiration in life and service, its only comfort and hope in the hour of death.

—Geerhardus Vos, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” The Princeton Theological Review (1906): 289-305.

Acts 2 tells us how the church kept steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching

What follows after that?

They of their own free will took their proceeds, homes, and lands, sold it so that they could take care of the poor in the congregation. This behavior didn’t come from the pastors of the church. This came from people who embraced the gospel message proclaimed by the Apostles, so that (the book of Acts tells us) “…no one was lacking.”

Those who love the gospel will love to be stirred by its truth all over again.