Q: Remind me of how influential German thinkers have been.
Germany has always been on the cutting edge of various kinds of progress. For example, in the early 1900s, Germany was the most technologically advanced country in the world. Their engineering was way ahead of America’s and Britain’s.
When I think of influential theologians, Germany boasts some of the most influential in history. Obviously, Luther gave us the Protestant Reformation. Later, you’ve got German negative higher criticism: First, there’s Hermann Reimarus in the 1700s when Germany is still pious enough that he doesn’t actually publish his papers during his lifetime. Another major higher critic was Friedrich Schleiermacher who popularized negative higher criticism and became the father of liberalism. Julian Wellhausen gave us the JEDP theory of the Old Testament. David Strauss debunked the gospel miracles. Rudolf Bultmann “demythologized” the biblical text. Karl Barth introduced us to neo-orthodoxy.
When it comes to the history of philosophy, there are also some very influential Germans. Even though he was a modernist, Immanuel Kant laid the groundwork for postmodernism by emphasizing the structures of the mind preventing us from accessing reality. You’ve got the pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer and the existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of nihilism. And of course, the German Karl Marx gave us Marxism.
Q: How important is it to engage with German thinkers?
It’s a good question. I’ll give you a quote that seems to suggest that it’s not all that important, but then I’ll respond to the quote. Missiologist Timothy Tennent wrote this in his Theology in the Context of World Christianity:
“Why do theological students in the West continue to spend countless hours learning about the writings of a few well-known, now deceased, German Theologians whose global devotees are actually quite small, and yet completely ignore over one billion living, breathing Muslims who represent one of the most formidable challenges to the Christian gospel today? We must be far more intentional about fostering a more engaged, mission-focused theology that is informed by actual global realities. The effectiveness of our global witness as the church of Jesus Christ depends on it.”
I agree with Tennent that we must be intentional in engaging our Muslim friends with the love and truth of the gospel; however, I vehemently disagree that the study of influential, now deceased, German theologians is a waste of time. (Let me add that it could be a waste of time if they are studied merely for intellectual pleasure and academic prestige.)
What Tennent fails to recognize is that the aftermath of hyper-liberal (naturalistic) theology and Negative Higher Criticism born in Europe is also a formidable challenge and an actual global reality: It 1) weakened the church, 2) caused anti-intellectualism among Evangelicals, 3) handed over academic institutions to non-believers, 4) opened the door to Islam in the West by creating a spiritual vacuum in Europe and North America.
I study deceased German theologians because they have attacked the Scriptural foundations of our faith and the orthodox beliefs of the early church. And doing missions, evangelism, discipleship, and apologetics in a post-Christian context requires that we do such.
Q: What does it look like for the church to move forward in reaching Germany?
For one thing, you have to work with what is already there. That’s why I love working with Kontaktmission. We are led by missiologists who realize that Restoration Movement can’t be exclusive. We have to team up with the other 2-3% Evangelicals on the ground. As Evangelicals, it’s already hard enough just not being identified as a cult. Even though Germans don’t like the state-recognized churches, they at least perceive them as legitimate. If you’re not affiliated with these recognized churches, you might as well be perceived as Jehovah’s Witnesses or LDS. That’s why it’s imperative to team up with other Evangelicals.
When I went there, I thought, if we do good worship and have enough space, people will come. But I found out it’s really only through personal relationships. And it needs to be coupled with good apologetics. Practically speaking, missionaries and pastors will need to be apologists. The way forward is a combination of personal relationship and good apologetics.
Unfortunately, American Christians are just like the pious Europeans of a century or two ago who probably didn’t imagine that they would end up abandoning their faith.
For the most part, the American church seems to assume that apologetics isn’t important. You go to church and live the pious life and try not to offend people. This ends up bringing one compromise after another. But if we’re not going to stake our beliefs and stand our ground now, we’ll find ourselves eventually unable to stand for anything.
Q: I’ve heard you use the metaphor of “tsunami” before. What do you mean by it?
As missionaries in Germany, we lived on the other side of the “tsunami” in Europe. We saw the devastation from a skeptical view of the Bible—specifically German negative higher criticism. Now, we’re back here in the States, and the tsunami is hitting our shores.
Unfortunately, American Christians are just like the pious Europeans of a century or two ago who probably didn’t imagine that they would end up abandoning their faith. After the foundations are gone, there’s still a goodness to Christianity that people appreciate—sort of a self-help feel to it. But the foundations get replaced by a superficial, emotionally driven club-church mentality.
We will do one of three things:
- We dig deeper into our convictions and grow up in the faith, getting away from milk and starting to digest solid food.
- Or we’ll hide into a completely privatized faith. This is already why the church doesn’t evangelize. Most American Christians are uncomfortable by the thought of evangelism.
- Or we’re going to cave. Progressive Christianity will eventually give into everything; we just don’t realize it yet. We’re going to embrace it all. For a preview of this, look at how many deconversions we’ve seen the last two or three years. As a lion, Satan is licking his chops.