An Important but Neglected Distinction

An Important but Neglected Distinction

There is an important distinction which is absolutely vital to good theology and to a healthy Christian life. It is also a distinction which seems to have been missed by large numbers of people on both the left and the right of the theological spectrum. It is the distinction between childish and childlike. Christians are called to have a faith with the latter quality; not so the former.

I suspect that future generations may well look back on the present day as an era of unsurpassed childishness in the history of mankind. The vast amounts of money paid to grown men to play playground games for the entertainment of the rest of us simply beggars belief.   The cultural influence ascribed to young pop stars is quite bizarre. I mean, whatever one's opinion of government health care, surely we can all agree that Justin Bieber's opinions on the matter can be safely ignored? And the compulsive need of otherwise apparently intelligent people to tweet the most mind-boggling banalities of their lives into the public domain is startling. To these relatively trivial acts of childishness we might also add the more sinister: the development of a political and legal culture which refuses to recognize any shades of grey. As to morality, the spoiled infants really have taken over the universe of moral discourse when a man who deserts his wife for another man is more likely to be hailed as a cultural hero because of his courageous honesty than decried as a sleazy cretin for his cowardly capitulation to his hormones.

Sadly, this pervades the church as well. Many megachurches have grown prosperous through the strange, unexpected but undoubtedly successful marriage of a broadly orthodox theology with childish idioms. Further, many Christians in churches that are not so 'mega' have their childish ways and their childish people. It is not simply those pastors who dress like slovenly thirteen year olds when they preach that exhibit such qualities. All of us can be tempted in this direction when we are not given what we want and proceed immediately thereafter to throw out of our little prams whatever toys we happen to have. And what can one say about the consistent failure of the Christian twitterati, from the least to the greatest, to understand that some things are for public consumption and that some things are to be kept private? Knowing when to speak in public and when to keep discreetly and modestly quiet (especially about one's own successes) used to be a basic part of what it meant to grow up.  

Perhaps at the very heart of childishness lies the inability to acknowledge any kind of external authority. The toddler screaming for the confiscated teddy bear is expressing outrage that his world has been changed against his will, in much the same way as the teenager whose life has (and I quote) 'been like totally ruined' because her cell phone has been taken away from her for the evening by an irate parent. So much of what we think of as childish behavior, such as  tantrums, petty rule breaking, and insolence, contains a significant dose of the repudiation of external authority.

Some years ago I remember engaging someone on the issue of biblical authority. This individual, at the time a professing Christian, simply could not accept the claims that the Bible made on his life. Gradually, I noticed a pattern emerging: this person also hated the fact that his employer held him accountable, that there were elders in the church who wanted to hold him accountable, and that his father had held him accountable. It became clear to me that this person was not struggling with biblical authority in particular; he was struggling with external authority in general. Ironically, the West has tended to hold up such individualism and independence as a sign of maturity. As we see the latest stage of that project unfolding before us and the Western world becoming a place where law courts are needed to decide where five year olds can use the bathroom, I think the childishness of the trajectory becomes all too clear.  And, by the way, in the case to which I allude, it is the five year olds, not the adults, who have won. That should tell you something.

Childlikeness, however, is the very antithesis of childishness. If childishness involves the refusal to acknowledge external authority, and thus a refusal to acknowledge one's own limits and one's own lack of uniqueness in this world, childlikeness is very different. To be childlike is to accept that one is not the measure of all things. Children at their best are those who look to others, especially adults, that they might learn things of which they are as yet ignorant. Being childlike involves trusting the parent or the older sibling for protection, drawing on their wisdom, knowing that the grown-ups have competences and abilities which are there to help. 

In the Christian world, one might add that it involves an acceptance of the power and authority of God, of the sufficiency of his revelation, and of the full adequacy of the salvation he has wrought in Christ. It also involves being involved in the local church, looking to the elders and the deacons for support and for nurture. It involves realising that one does not stand apart from, or above, the body of Christ: one is part of it and under his authority as the head.

To return to the example of the man I mentioned above. I recall a comment by Karl Barth concerning scripture. Now, while I do not endorse Barth's view of scripture, this saying has stayed with me since I read it. It went something like this: I know that scripture is the word of God in the way that I know my mother is my mother. Now, I confess that I have never asked my mother to take a DNA test. I do have a copy of my birth certificate, on which her name appears, but I have never used this as a basis for my relationship with her, nor have I ever tried to find out if the certificate had been somehow forged as part of a wider conspiracy to confuse me. I have always simply known that my mother is mother and I do not regard my conviction in this matter as remotely irrational, embarrassing, ill-founded or ridiculous. I confess that I do recall in one particularly unpleasant row in my teenage years yelling 'You're not my mother!' but the cry was a calculatedly cruel insult, not a statement of biological fact or of personal belief. I would also argue that, ironically, the statement marked the high watermark of my teenage stupidity and childishness.

Herman Bavinck says that the Christian accepts God's special revelation in Christ in childlike faith. That is an implausible claim in a world where childlikeness is so despised and childishness so exalted. But it captures nicely the thought expressed by Christ himself who pointed to children as paradigmatic for the manner in which his words should be received.  

Growth in Christian maturity should manifest itself in numerous ways. One of them is that we should become less and less enamoured  with the myths we tell ourselves of how unique we are as individuals, of how we have limitless potential, of how we really do have the last word on everything. In short, we should become less childish. Instead, we should become more conscious of how we are really just like everyone else - limited, dependent, finite, fallen. We should also learn more and more to find our fulfillment in resting in the simple biblical, catechetical faith which describes who we are, what we need, and how we can find it in submitting in humble and reverent faith to Christ. In other words, we should become less childish and more childlike.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012).