Robert Schuller Evangelicalism’s Humpty Dumpty
When Alice was conversing with Humpty Dumpty, she rebuked him for misusing words. Humpty replied, ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.
Alice protested, asking if she could really make words mean different things, to which Humpty answered, ‘The question is, which is to be the master – that is all’.
This approach to words and their meanings has been common among theological liberals and cultists for years. Visit the worship service of any liberal church and most likely you will hear much that seems to define and frame orthodox biblical truth. Listen more carefully, however, and you will soon realise that the words and phrases have been infused with new meaning. They have, to coin a phrase, been humptified.
Ahead of the curve
There is nothing unusual about this in liberal or cultic circles, but we expect better of those such as Robert Schuller who claim to be Evangelicals. His pedigree is impressive. Schuller is founder and long-time pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in southern California; the author of many books; a television personality; one of the pioneers (if not the father) of the seeker-sensitive movement; and much more.
As I write these words, Schuller is hosting the ReThink Conference at the Crystal Cathedral, along with ’emergent’ leader Erwin McManus. Speaking at the conference are such noted Evangelicals as Gary Smalley, Chuck Colson, Kay Warren, John Ortberg, Nancy Ortberg, Lee Strobel and George Barna. Many of the other speakers would make no claim to being evangelical Christians: Larry King, George H. W. Bush, Rupert Murdoch, Ben Stein, Lou Holtz and Kathy Ireland.1
One stated goal behind Rethink is to ‘get ahead of the curve… [and] leave equipped to better lead those you influence through today’s and tomorrow’s challenges’.2 The conference was created to inform Christian leaders that a paradigm shift is now underway. As a result of this shift, they say, Christianity must be reinvented if it is to survive. Part of this reinvention is to repair the breach that exists between Christianity and other movements – including world religions and the best in secular thought.
In his book My journey, Schuller writes: ‘I met once with the Grand Mufti [a Muslim], truly one of the great Christ-honoring leaders of faith. He agreed to come and be my guest … I’m dreaming a bold impossible dream; that positive-thinking believers in God will rise above the illusions that our sectarian religions have imposed on the world, and that leaders of the major faiths will rise above doctrinal idiosyncrasies, choosing not to focus on disagreements, but rather to transcend divisive dogmas to work together to bring peace and prosperity and hope to the world’3 [emphasis added].
To accomplish such an agenda would require some mutually agreed intellectual framework and a unifying experience – but in a fallen world such unity will never be based on theological truths as found in Scripture. After all, Jesus said, ‘The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7:14). And Paul was clear that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world and that the message of the cross is foolish and offensive to the unbeliever (1 Corinthians 1:20, 23).
If God’s communication to mankind divides rather than unifies, as Jesus said it would, then what is an ‘evangelical’ leader to do who sees as his mission to unify the Christian faith with other religions and ideologies? He must create a message that is acceptable to both Christian and non-Christian communities. Schuller does this by taking commonly understood biblical and theological terms and changing their meaning.
Sin and hell
For example, concerning sin and hell Schuller makes a very biblical statement in his book Self-esteem, the new Reformation: ‘I am convinced that the deepest of all human needs is salvation from sin and hell’.4 Then almost immediately he warns, ‘We come now to the problem of semantics … What do I mean by sin?’
He gives several definitions of sin including: ‘Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem’.5 Never mind that self-esteem is not even mentioned in the Scriptures – Schuller has now re-defined sin in terms of modern pop-psychology.
And what about hell? ‘A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem’.6 The biblical understandings of sin as lawlessness – a rebellion against a holy God, a falling short of his glory – and of hell as a real place of eternal judgement, don’t play well in the minds of the unredeemed. But psychological categories that classify these things in the light of human suffering do.
One’s view of sin and hell will shape one’s view of the gospel. Schuller’s gospel message is closely attached to his understanding of our purpose on this planet. He offers an ‘alternative theology of mission [which] focuses on peace, brotherhood, and economic equality’.7
Furthermore, ‘As we focus on Jesus Christ, we shall discover a new theology, one that offers salvation from shame to self-esteem’.8 In fact, to proclaim the gospel we must ‘tell people everywhere that God wants all of us to feel good about ourselves!’ 9
To be ‘born again’ in Schuller’s theology is not to undergo a fundamental change in nature from sinner to saint, but rather to ‘be changed from a negative to a positive self-image – from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust’.10
Schuller’s gospel of self-esteem leads to a heaven of sorts: ‘The glorious hope will be a society of civility where people really treat each other beautifully! And the end result will be transformed and redeemed persons. Persons inwardly secure enough to live open, transparent, and honest lives. Healthy persons who will really feel good about themselves because their ego needs are met in sincere services, rather than in stuffy status’.11
Schuller’s understanding of the gospel stems directly from his misunderstanding of the human condition. In biblical theology, man’s greatest problem is his lost condition. He is estranged from God, lost in his sin and rebelliousness, and corrupt in his nature. Schuller rejects this understanding of the human state as shallow and insulting.
Instead he insists, ‘Our rebellion is a reaction, not our nature. By nature we are fearful, not bad. Original sin is not a mean streak; it is a non-trusting inclination. The core of original sin, then, is LOT – Lack of Trust. Or it could be considered an innate inability to adequately value ourselves.
‘Label it a “negative self-image”, but do not say that the central core of the human soul is wickedness. If this were so, then truly, the human being is totally depraved. But positive Christianity does not hold to human depravity, but to human inability’.12
Schuller’s ‘new Reformation’ is wrapped around people and human self-esteem. ‘It is precisely at this point’, he informs us, ‘that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be “God-centered”, not “man-centered”.’13
When it comes to understanding the kingdom of God, Schuller aligns with both old-school liberals and the new liberals (the emergent church). The kingdom, he says, ‘is a society where the divine spirit of self-respect and self-esteem penetrates the substance, style, strategy, and spirit of human interactions and interrelationships.
‘The self-esteem of each person is accepted unconditionally and irrevocably as that human value which will control all of life. What is the kingdom of God on earth? It is a community of persons who, through an experience of nonjudgmental acceptance and affirmation by Jesus Christ, have been personally redeemed from self-shame to self-esteem’.14
And who belongs to this kingdom of God? ‘Everyone who does some act that builds self-esteem and self-respect in other persons’.15 And, ‘his kingdom is coming and his will is being done every time we act in a way that lifts another person’s dignity’.16
What then does God want from people? ‘I believe he is trying to build a society of human beings who live out the golden rule … This means that the kingdom of God is that invisible collection of committed Christians that transcends culture, ideologies, nationalistic prejudices, and creeds – all bound by the golden commitment to say nothing and do nothing that would attack self-esteem, the self-respect, and the dignity of any other human being’.17
Schuller’s mangled theology emerges from his convoluted view of Scripture and inspiration. As an example he states, ‘Luther and Calvin, we know, looked to the Book of Romans in the Bible for their primary inspiration. Were they, unknowingly, possessed more by the spirit of St Paul than by the Spirit of Jesus Christ? Are we not on safer grounds if we look to our Lord’s words to launch our reformation?’18
Some refer to this as the ‘red-letter view of inspiration’ – in which Jesus’ words are pitted against those of the other divinely inspired writers and, if there appears to be a difference, his words trump all others.
I could continue to document Schuller’s reworking of biblical terms and theological statements, but the reader will have got the point. By using cherished words, precious to those who love biblical Christianity, he identifies with Evangelicals. By infusing those words with meanings contradictory to their Spirit-inspired intent, he degrades the Christian faith to a man-centred belief wrapped around the core of self-esteem. Through the manipulation of truth, Schuller makes Christianity more palpable to the world, but at the same time he guts it of its true meaning.
3. Robert H. Schuller, My journey (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p.502.
4. Robert H. Schuller, Self esteem, the new Reformation (Waco, Texas, Word Books, 1982), p.14.
6-18. Ibid., respectively, pp. 14-15; 30; 39; 58; 68; 39-40; 67; 64; 72; 73; [no page]; 135; 39.
Gary E. Gilley