Subjective and Objective Religion

Subjective and Objective Religion (Part 1)

Every Adventist theologian, leader, teacher, and minister should reflect carefully on this article.


It must be said at the very beginning that there perhaps is never a reli­gion that is totally sub­jective or totally objec­tive. However, this dis­cussion will deal largely with the trends or direc­tions of emphasis in re­ligion of either of these two types as they have appeared down through the centuries, and how they have affected man's philosophy of life and his relation to a Supreme Being. To be totally subjective would be to be completely controlled by one's inner emotions. On the other hand, to be absolutely objective would produce a hard, cold formalism or pure legalism.

Confusion Multiplied

Religion is an element in our life's ex­perience dealing with our relation to a Su­preme Being, whether in worship or in acts of piety. Thus it would seem a foregone conclusion that anyone having religion must be moved or directed someway, either from within or without, by a supernatural power, or a claim thereto. But were he without an objective standard received from this Supreme Being, each one, having different backgrounds, would be moved dif­ferently both in his worship and in his acts of piety. This would indicate that a totally subjective experience would be unreliable, and hence man must be guided religiously by something outside of himself. If not, man, left to a subjective experience, would produce as many types or forms of religion, as there are individuals. This could cer­tainly not bring the answer to Christ's prayer for unity recorded in John 17. In this regard the pendulum of religion has swung back and forth throughout the cen­turies—at times objective and at times sub­jective, with all the stages in between, per­haps more often out of balance than in balance.

Apostles, Old Testament Writings, and Christ

The early Christian church began its work upon the foundation laid by Christ. They had a way of life set before them by His example (John 14:6). They also had the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament which had testified of Him (John 5:39). To them this was an objective standard, a guide to their spiritual life, the core of which was the law of God contained in the Ten Commandments, of which Christ had been a living example (Ps. 40:7, 8; Matt. 5:17). To be sure, this Christian life, exemplified by Christ, was motivated by an inner subjective experience as mani­fested on Pentecost and in other re­corded experiences. But they had to have something outside of themselves to give guidance to their subjective experience.

As time passed, this balanced experience became more rare and men were more and more moved by subjective fear and superstition, with its sorcery and system of terrorism. The external standard of the Word gave place to subjective or human guidance. Speaking of this period when religion rested on a system of terrorism and the power of evil spirits, Lecky says, "The panic which its teachings will cre­ate, will overbalance the faculties of multitudes. The awful images of evil spirits of superhuman power, and of untiring ma­lignity, will continually haunt the imagi­nation."'

Dark-Age Subjectivity

This subjective experience of the church led into the period justly termed the "Dark Ages,- which began in the sixth century. During this period, between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, supersti­tions were most numerous and men's minds were completely imbued by super­natural conceptions.' Satanic power was well-nigh universal. Devil possession, exor­cisms, miracles, and apparitions of the mind were accepted without any ques­tion.' "It was firmly believed that the arch­fiend was forever hovering about the Chris­tian; but it was also believed that the sign of the cross, or a few drops of holy water, or the name of Mary, could put him to an immediate and ignominious flight."

Then came the Renaissance, the turn­ing point of European intellect. A gen­eral revival of Latin literature, as well as Greek and Hebrew, modified the thinking of the people. A feeble spirit of doubt be­gan to combat the spirit of credulity of the past, which greatly affected the theologi­cal interest and concept. Desire for secu­lar knowledge began to replace the pas­sion for theology and the subjective su­perstitions of former times. Men of active minds began to test the subjective fears and the terrorisms of the church that had held them in the bondage of fear. To this the church reacted with inflexibility. To her this doubt and rebellion was a heinous crime. Of this Lecky says, "Accordingly we find that about the twelfth century, the popular teaching began to assume a sterner and more solemn cast and the de­votions of the people to be more deeply tinctured by fanaticism." Thus, where the church controlled, in the century just be­fore the Reformation, witchcraft pursued its course among the ignorant in conflict with the opinions of the educated. Had the church always maintained its objec­tive guide, this long disastrous period would never have occurred. As we shall observe later, it was this subjective super­stitious credulity that created such a reac­tion in the church toward faith in God and His Word that resulted in the agnos­ticism, atheism, deism, and rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are still reaping a harvest in the varied concepts and philosophies of men who have separated from a standard outside of themselves and thus have cast themselves adrift on the subjective speculations of men.

Stop Scholastic Subtleties

This intellectual reaction of the thir­teenth to the sixteenth century resulted often in extremes and subtleties in which faith in God and Christ was at times re­duced to zero. So much so that Erasmus wrote in 1518 to Capeto, "I wish that there could be an end of scholastic subtle­ties, or, if not an end, that they could be thrust into a second place and Christ be taught plainly and simply. . . . Doctrines are taught now which have no affinity with Christ, and only darken our eyes," as quoted by Rufus M. Jones from Erasmus' Epistle CCVII.8 Both the superstitions of the Dark Ages and the intellectualism of the Renaissance, with their opposite reac­tion, had departed from the balance of an objective-subjective religion.

The Reformation made an attempt to correct this unbalanced situation by again restoring an objective guide outside of man himself and thus restoring equilib­rium to religious life. The Bible became the objective guide, and the subjective spiritual life led them in obedience to its precepts. Saintes had depicted it as fol­lows: "The spiritual grounds on which the reformers relied to impress on their la­bours the seal of immortality, and to se­cure for them the regard even of those who could not agree with them, were their respect for the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which they considered as inspired by the Spirit of God himself."'

Luther and the Scriptures

The following sample quotations from Luther could be duplicated from the other Reformers: "Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doc­trine on earth." "God's will is completely contained therein, so that we must con­stantly go back to them. Nothing should be presented which is not confirmed by the authority of both Testaments and agrees with them." " "Know, then, that the Old Testament is a book of laws, which teaches what men are to do and not to do . . . just as the New Testament is a gos­pel or book of grace, and teaches where one is to get the power to fulfil the law."

Here was a restoration of faith based on something outside of themselves, and yet they were strongly moved from within. They were back to the foundation of the early church. But this did not continue long. The spiritual force was soon lost, the objective guide was dimmed, and many controversies arose. To quote Saintes: "Luther and Melancthon were hardly in their graves before the theologians of their school set to work, though indirectly, to destroy the fruits of their masters' la­bours." New hair-splitting controversies arose too numerous to mention. They had lost their inner spiritual experience and with it their objective standard. They had lost their subjective-objective balance. Hurst says, "There could be but one moral result to the prolonged strife—a great, spir­itual decline."

Detached Deism

By the end of the Thirty Years' War practical religion was forgotten and angry diatribes against one another took its place. Their objective guide, the Scrip­tures, became only a tool to forward their selfish and unscriptural ideas. Doubt and skepticism arose and a new concept of God developed known as deism in which God is not immanent but is a faraway transcendent God, uninterested in this world's present problems. Hence, revela­tion was not divine but was positively su­perfluous. This could lead only in one di­rection, namely, humanism. Thus objec­tive religion with a supernatural guide was lost and man was on his own, wholly de­pendent on human reasoning alone. Hurst concludes that English deists, influenced largely by the French, exerted a great in­fluence in preparing the way for rationalism." All this served to undermine the in­fluence and power of the Bible so recently restored to its apostolic position, and the way was opened for further development in this same direction.

Pious Pietism

A natural reaction to this spiritual de­cline and formalism into which the churches had fallen was pietism. From the extreme of formalism the pendulum swung to the other extreme, the mystical spirit of subjectivism. This movement began, how­ever, with the purest of motives, but its momentum gradually carried it over into many extreme and fanatical positions. Ja­kob Boehme (1575-1624), like some of the other early mystics, endeavored to restore spiritual life and confidence in the Bible." However, soon the theory of divine illumi­nation led the movement into interpreting Scripture by deep and mysterious mean­ings.

Spener, one of the early Pietists, recog­nized much good in the Reformation but felt it had never been sufficiently com­pleted." He regarded the Scriptures not only as a standard of doctrine but a stand­ard of life. His emphasis was on devotion and practical Christian living. But soon this movement led into ecstatic disorders. Some went into trances, saw visions, and uttered predictions. The standard, which had held them to a true and sane way of life, in their ecstatic exuberance began to take second place, and they emerged with a totally subjective experience with no guide except their own inner experience. Friedmann describes pietism in a similar vein: "Pietism, . . . is not a uniform phe­nomenon but a movement which found expression in markedly different groups, among which there is only one common element, namely that they all depart from the 'concrete' conception of the Bible into a subjectivism of faith expressed in terms of a human rational experience."" This is not to be interpreted that the majority were not sincere godly men and women seeking a better life but that their stress was on the inner experience rather than on Nachfolge ("imitation of Christ"), and as a result they sometimes lost their bal­ance, which led to diverse, fanatical ex­tremes.

To say that pietism led to rationalism would almost be a paradox. But strange as it may seem, in some cases the one subjectivism led into the other. Friedmann, in discussing the tie-in of Anabaptism with pietism, especially in its later period, and its eventual breakup, says that in some cases "it led to indifference or rational­istic attitudes." "


1 W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, pp. 12, 13.

2 These false conceptions were developments from within due to fear of spirits, et cetera, and not derived from the objective standard of the Scriptures.

3 Lecky, op. cit., pp- 61, 62.

4 Ibid., p. 62.

5 Ibid., p. 73.

6 Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, p. 3.

7 Amand Saintes, A Critical History of Rationalism in Germany, p. 11.

8 See Calvin's Institutes (7th American ed., rev.) vol. I, p. 89; Westminster Confession of Faith on "Bible," Sec. VI; The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion (rev. 1801) in Creeds of Christendom by Philip Schaff, VT 3, pp. 489, 500; The French (Protestant) Confession of Faith (1559) Article 5, in Philip Schaff, op. cit., p. 362; The Belgic Confession (1561) in Philip Schaff, op. cit., pp. 397, 398.

9 George W. Forell, "Career of the Reformer," Luther's Works, vol. 2. p. 12.

10 M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, p. 17 (Works, vol. 4, 180:11).

11 E. Theodore Bachmann, "Word and Sacrament," 1, Luther's Works, vol. 35, p. 236.

12 Saintes, Ibid., p. 35.

13 John Fletcher Hurst, History of Rationalism, p. 31.

14 Hurst, Short History of the Modern Church in Europe, p. 28.

15 Ibid., pp. 54. 33.

l6 Arthur Wilford Nagler, Pietism and Methodism, p. 44.

17. Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Cen­tunes, p. 83.

18 Ibid., p. 9.

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November 1965

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