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An Introduction to Pragmatism
February 03, 2004
Pragmatism has become a dominant force in the Christian world. I want to take a brief look at the history of pragmatism and then show how it has influenced the church. In following days I am going to write about areas in the Christian world where it has had a significant impact.
Pragmatism is rooted in the philosophy of men like John Stuart Mill who had a great formative influence in philosophers like John Dewey who applied pragmatism to education and William James who applied it to religion. These men taught that the only way to determine truth was by practical results. Having been founded by philosophers, pragmatism was cemented into the Western mindset by the Industrial Revolution. Pragmatism in industry has changed the way we live. James Boice says “The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done. Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing…and abundant food.” (Whatever Happened To The Gospel of Grace p.50) This has been achieved, of course, at the cost of quality and craftsmanship.
Pragmatism is defined by Webster’s as “the doctrine that practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value.” In short, truth is determined by consequences. Whether something is right or wrong, good or bad is dependent on results. Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have affirmed the doctrine of sola Scriptura which teaches that the Bible alone is to be our standard of morality and truth. This standard is rooted in the early church and, of course, in the Bible. It has always been a fundamental teaching of Protestantism. Sola Scriptura was the foundational doctrine of the Reformation – the doctrine that everything else depended on.
Pragmatism and sola Scriptura must stand in opposition as each claims to be the key to determining truth. As Christians we need to decide if we are going to depend upon Scripture as the absolute standard of truth or if we will determine truth by consequences. Though we would be hard pressed to find a Christian who says “I believe in pragmatism” the philosophy manifests itself in the Christian world in many different ways. Though people affirm sola Scriptura with their mouths (or doctrinal statements) they deny it with their actions.
Pragmatism has reared its ugly head throughout the Christian world. It is found in statements about evangelistic techniques such as “if it only reaches one person it is worth it.” It is found in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church, a textbook for church growth, where he writes “Never criticize any method that God is blessing.” He also says “We must be willing to adjust our worship practices when unbelievers are present. God tells us to be sensitive to the hang-ups of unbelievers in our services.” These ideas are not Biblical; they are rooted in the perceived consequences. Pragmatism is found wherever Christians run to join programs and hurry to change their worship services because of what they expect to see happen because of the changes they make. In short, it is found anywhere the emphasis is removed from what Scripture says and where the emphasis is placed on the expected results.
God does not always provide the results we would like to see. There are missionaries that have spent many years laboring in the mission field and have seen very few hearts and lives changed. Does this necessarily mean that their technique is flawed? Does it necessarily mean that they are not doing God’s will? By no means! God sometimes chooses to provide results and other times He does not. Even Jesus experienced varied results when He ministered. In some towns the people listened and trusted in Him while other towns rejected Him. Again, this does not mean that Jesus’ technique was flawed or that He was being disobedient. More than anything God desires and expects obedience of His children. Pragmatism has no answer to the question of how we determine obedience for obedience can only be determined through Scripture.
The obvious danger of pragmatism in the church is that we lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His word. When we lose that focus the church is on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard of God’s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God.