JESUS CHRIST, THE WAY: AVOIDING THE DITCHES
BY: JAMES A. FOWLER
Jesus is the Way that avoids the ditches of undue epistemology and experientialism.
In His departing words to His disciples, just prior to His arrest, imprisonment and death, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father, but through Me.“ (John 14:6) The early Christians, you may recall, were identified with “the Way.” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22)
When Jesus said, “I am the way,” the intent was not to identify Himself as the pathway, walkway or roadway that would lead to heaven or to God. Jesus knew Himself to be God (John 10:30), and that to know Him was to know God. (John 14:7) Neither did Jesus mean to imply that He was the method or procedural way to comprehend God. The Hebrews understood that the “way to God” referred to the saving activity of God. They knew well the plea of the Psalmist that “Thy way may be known on the earth; Thy salvation among all nations.” (Psalm 67:2) Jesus identified Himself with the “saving way” of God, comprehensive of both way and means. When Aquila and Priscilla explained to Apollos “the way of God” (Acts 18:26), they did not explain the path, the road, the procedure, the plan of God. They explained to him Jesus, “the way of God,” the saving way, the real way, the living way. Jesus is the way to be man as God intends man to be, the way to do what God wants to be and to do in us. Jesus is the way to glorify God, for God does not give His glory to another. (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11)
What then did Jesus mean when He spoke of “the broad way that leads to destruction” and “the narrow way that leads to life, with few who find it”? (Matt. 7:13,14) He knew Himself to be “the life.” (John 11:26; 14:6) He knew that many would choose the broad way where “anything goes” in the satisfaction of their own desires, rather than identification with His Life, restricted as it is by the parameters of the character of God. So the narrowness of the Christ-way is not determined by man-made definitions of belief and practice, but only by comparing how “God goes” (always in accord with His character) with “anything goes.” Accepting these parameters of God’s character expressed in us by His grace, the Christian then discovers Christ, the God-way, to be as broad as can be imagined. There is seemingly unlimited (infinite) latitude within the liberty of God’s grace, within the expression of the Christ-Life.
The God-way is Jesus Christ. This ontic distinctive is so often jettisoned by those who would be Christian teachers because they fail to understand that Christianity is Christ, way and means. Christianity is the indwelling living presence of Jesus, the God-man — the same Being of that One who was born, lived and died on earth historically. The dynamic Being and activity of the very Life of Jesus Christ functions in the Christian. (II Cor. 13:5; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27) There can be no act of God apart from His Being. He always acts “in character” and does what He does because He is who He is. His doing is the dynamic expression of His Being. Christianity is always and only the dynamic expression of the life of Jesus Christ in the Christian, individually and collectively.
It is most regrettable that the early polemic arguments, hammered out so meticulously by the likes of Athanasius and Hilary, were not applied also to salvation and sanctification. Establishing the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity, they explained the essential oneness of being, the ‘omoousion, of God the Father and God the Son. They did not proceed to point out with equal precision of terminology how the oneness of Being is retained as God functions within the Christian, always acting in the expression of the oneness of His Being. Were they to have done so we might have avoided the extremely deficient Trinitarian theology that is rampant in contemporary evangelicalism.
Jesus is the divine way of expressing Himself. The Christian has received Him (John 1:12), Jesus Christ the Way, into himself, and is “in Christ,” identified in spiritual oneness (I Cor. 6:17) with the Way. Christian living, the behavioral expression of the Christ-life, is contingent on the dynamic expression of Divine Being expressed in behavioral action. Created as a derivative man, the Christian derives his/her spiritual condition and identity, as well as behavioral expression, from God in Christ.
If this then is the dynamic of the Christ-way, what then are the ditches into which religion inevitably slides in the broad way?
The left ditch is epistemologically established with religious rationalism. Epistemology “stands upon” propositional premises of sentential truth statements concerning the historicity and theological accuracy of Jesus Christ. Such an epistemological emphasis converts Christianity into an ideological belief-system intent on preserving doctrinal orthodoxy.
The right ditch is well entrenched with experientialism and the subjectivism of personal impact or effect. This is inclusive of philosophical existentialism and Bultmannian demythologizing alongside of simple mysticism and charismatic enthusiasm. Such religious experience centered in personal emotions and feelings is often seen as the antidote to the sterility and rigidity of rationalism.
A comparison of the epistemological and experiential approaches with the ontological reality of Jesus Christ will serve to expose the differences.
The epistemological religionists want to “figure it out” and “work it out.” With their intellect, reason and mind they attempt to “figure it out” logically. They analyze, systematize, formulize, theologize and criticize. They “study to show themselves approved” (II Tim 2:15-KJV), engaging in doctrinal disputation and apologetics. Concluding that they have arrived at “the knowledge of the truth,” they affirm the fundamentals of their belief-system with dogmatic absolutism Having thus “figured it out,” they set about to “work it out,” to keep the rules, to obey the law. They carefully figure out the techniques, the procedures, the formulas, the “how-tos” to guide other people in the working out of the Christian faith. The precepts and principles for every procedure are documented precisely. It is an intense system of legalism and moralism. Underlying their striving to “work it out” is the humanistic premise of self-generative man and his innate ability to create and perform what they perceive God expects of them.
The experiential religionists, on the other hand, want to “feel it,” “experience what it does for you,” and perhaps merge with the sensation. Instead of objective rationalism, they focus on internal subjective experience. Filled with enthusiasm, they seek the sensation of the religious “high,” the ecstatic emotional feeling. They sense that there is a metaphysical “energy” that they want to plug into and merge with. The objective of the experience is “what it does for you;” the impact it has upon you; how it affects you. These existential effects are then often regarded as “the moving of the Holy Spirit” in one’s life.
Notice that the epistemological and experiential religionists are both dealing with a static object, an “it” which they seek to figure out and work out, or feel and experience in order to merge with. Jesus Christ is not an “it,” an object. He is the personal dynamic of God. As the God-way, He is “the summing up of all things.“ (Eph. 1:10) All that we need to function as God intended man to function is made available in the dynamic of Christ’s life. We are to derive all from Him, ek theos. “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is of God.“ (II Cor. 3:5)
The epistemological religionist tends to view God as the purveyor of plans, precepts and decrees, Who has a sovereignly revealed “will” that must be discovered, discerned and adhered to. Thus he engages in “natural theology” that attempts to know God by deductive knowledge about God. In the other ditch, the experiential religionist tends to equate metaphysical and supernatural happenings with the activity of God, so that God is identified with the “energy” behind the ecstatic experience. Both have deviant ditch theologies because God is known only in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). This might be called “relational theology” in that a personal relationship is formed as the very Life of God dwells in the Christian. God is known relationally as He dynamically reveals Himself in the expression of His own character in our lives, the life of Christ lived out through us.
Consider the different approaches to salvation: The epistemologist tends to view salvation either as a product which Jesus dispenses or as a procedure in which the precise points on the ordo salutis must be precisely plotted (ex. Lordship salvation debate). The experientialist wants to be saved from “erroneous zones” in order to arrive at enlightenment and ecstasy, so as to experience salvation in the deliverance from unhappiness. Both separate salvation from the dynamic function of the Savior, Jesus Christ. There is no salvation apart from the living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as He makes us safe from human dysfunction and misuse apart from Him, and restores us to the divine intent of divinity functioning in man, the “saving life of Christ.” (Rom. 5:10)
For the rationalist religionist the “gospel” is a repository of information, the tenets of his teaching. Jesus came to teach the gospel, the “gospel according to Jesus” (ex. John MacArthur). For the charismatic enthusiast, the “good news” is the experience, the “heavenly” feeling, the subjective “burning bosom.” The gospel is not essentially information or experience. The gospel is Jesus Christ! He is the “good news.” In the dynamic restoration of divine life to man in Jesus Christ, we find the only “good news” for mankind.
“Grace” is defined by the propositional epistemologist as “the undeserved favor of God,” historically manifested most specifically in the death of Jesus Christ for man’s redemption. “Grace” is experienced by the subjective experientialist in the suppression of adversity and the unlimitedness of opportunity. Rather, “grace is realized through Jesus Christ.“ (John 1:17) Grace is the dynamic activity of God by the risen Lord Jesus in the life of the Christian. We live in Christ by the grace of God.
The externally oriented epistemologist often considers the church in architectural, institutional and academic categories. Ecclesiasticism becomes absolutism of belief-system, authoritarianism of leadership and activism of ministry. The experientialist emphasizes the need to belong and “bond” within community, the need to accept ad to be tolerant of all diversity and pluralism. The Church is described by Scripture as the “Body of Christ” alive with the life of Jesus Christ. The interaction of individuals indwelt with the dynamic of Jesus will evidence the loving character of God as they “love one another.”
Eschatological considerations become a preposterous confusion among epistemologists as they debate their presuppositions of historical division (dispensational, covenant), their millennial perspectives (pre, post, a), and their tribulation theories. The “last word” for the experientialist is “how you feel,” “does it work for you?” Sometimes the present experience becomes the focus to the denial of any future. The “last things” of God are all “in Christ.” Christians participate in the “last Adam” (I Cor. 15:45) in these “last days” (Acts 2:17) since Pentecost, as our King, Jesus, reigns in the kingdom of our hearts.
Long have the tribes in both ditches hollered and hurled accusations at one another, perceiving the other to be so far removed in error and to be their enemy. Long have they also fought hand to hand combat with those in their same trench over variations of belief or experience. They seem to be “blinded” (II Cor. 4:4) to the fact that there is any other way. The alternatives are not merely left or right ditch, rationalism or experientialism, objectivity or subjectivity, mind or emotion, fundamentalism or mysticism, but most often the other extreme position is all they can identify in opposition to their own, and they live in great fear of crossing the line into the evils and errors of the other. The polarization of consequences is not the either/or of either being in the left ditch or the right ditch, but the either/or of either being “in Christ” with the dynamic of God’s Being operative in and through the Christian, or remaining in the ditches of doomed humanity. Satan is the extremist who controls both ditches.
Ditches are places where you can get stuck. When you are stuck you aren’t moving; you’re static. Ditches are places of death! A “rut” has been defined as “a grave with both ends extended.” Many there are who never “see” to get out of the ruts and the ditches of human thinking. One can only do so by the revelation of God.
Jesus is the way! Not the methodological way to get everything figured out. Not the procedural way to live morally. Not the enlightening way to self-knowing. Jesus is God’s Way, the saving way, the living way. Jesus Christ alone is the dynamic of God’s Life whereby God’s Life functions within and through man as derived receptively by faith. Jesus is the way to be man as God intended man to be.
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
JESUS CHRIST, THE WAY-AVOIDING DITCHES [James A. Fowler] 1