Christian Humanism: Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood Church

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523. Oil and tempera on wood, National Gallery, London, on loan from Longford Castle. By Hans Holbein the Younger in 1523.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was an influential Christian humanist. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1523.

Peter Ditzel

There’s a good chance that, if Christian humanism isn’t already playing at your neighborhood church, it soon will be. Christian humanism isn’t just one in a long list of heresies that have been bombarding Christianity lately; its doctrines are central to many of the others. Knowing how Christian humanism differs from the true Gospel will help us to root it out and “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

We’re probably familiar with the secular brand of humanism for its rejection of God and faith, and its emphasis on finding truth, defining morality, and wanting to build a better world entirely through human effort. Secular humanism is easy to mark as an enemy of the Gospel. But Christian humanism, because it does not outright reject God and faith, makes itself harder to discern. This brands Christian humanism a more dangerous adversary than its secular cousin. But the two are linked.

As secular humanism sidles into place as progressive society’s twenty-first-century “religion,” so we also see the rise of Christian humanism for those who prefer to still consider themselves Christian. Make no mistake about it, however. Like all forms of false Christianity, Christian humanism may look like a lamb, but it speaks like a dragon.

Humanism Blossoms in the Renaissance

Christian humanism isn’t new. Scholars generally agree that Christian humanism started in the Renaissance toward the end of the fifteenth century. That era also saw the ascent of both the Magisterial and the Radical Reformations. At that time, all three—Christian humanism, the Magisterial Reformation, and the Radical Reformation—were intertwined to a greater or lesser extent. That’s because the major tenets of humanism at that time were educating the general populace, investigating the Roman and Greek classics as well as the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, translating the Bible into the common languages, studying the early church fathers, and promoting intellectual freedom and liberty of conscience. The Reformers shared these goals. They wanted an educated public who could read the Bibles and discern the truth for themselves, and who would then throw off the Catholic Church’s shackles.

Over time, however, the common ground between the Reformation and humanism began to fissure. Their educational goals began to diverge. Christian humanists saw education as the means to free man to be good. Some still saw this as merely freeing people from Catholic ritual and that church’s stifling dogma and oversight. They wanted to liberate people to pursue a more direct relationship with God. But others sought to enable man to create his own righteousness based upon the moral teachings of Christ.

This difference was immensely important. The Reformers saw the only proper relationship with God was as a repentant sinner justified by Christ. They understood that righteousness is God’s gracious gift apart from works, and that God gives this gift to undeserving, sinful man. For example, Martin Luther wrote, “The will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good,” and, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”

On the other hand, with its emphasis on human works of righteousness, much of Christian humanism morphed into secular humanism. But Christian humanism never completely disappeared. It manifested itself in the twentieth century in such movements as Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology. It is now again growing in popularity through Progressive Christianity, Postmodern Christianity, Woke Theology, and other teachings that claim to be Christian, but which always have humans as their focus.

Humanism Is Diametrically Opposed to Biblical Christianity

Some might ask, “Isn’t Christian humanism okay? After all, many Christian writers—even if they don’t identify as humanist—speak favorably of Christian humanism.” No, Christian humanism is not okay. And, yes, many Christian writers do speak of Christian humanism in favorable terms. They are deceived.

Certainly, many humanist goals—Secular and Christian—are admirable ambitions. Humanists often speak of wanting to end hunger, promoting the value and dignity of man, seeking intellectual and artistic excellence, working for world peace, and other worthy goals that it would be hard to gainsay, at least in general principles. But the devil is often in the details.

The realities are:

  • Christian humanism has never been more humanist than it is today
  • Humanism—even if modified by the word “Christian”—is still humanism
  • Humanism is in the business of exalting man into the place of God
  • No amount of well-intentioned aspirations and applications of the sayings of Jesus will change the fact that Christian humanists are trying to enter the “sheep fold” by climbing up some other way (John 10:1)

The Bible gives us only one Way to the Father. That Way is Jesus Christ: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me’” (John 14:6). Notice that Jesus also said He is the truth. When He said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32), He meant that we will know Him.

Ultimately, none of the alternatives offered by Christian humanists, including education, truly free us. The most educated and enlightened person on Earth is still a slave to sin and death if not freed by trusting in Jesus Christ alone as his or her Savior.

“But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, ‘He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). Humanists—even Christian humanists—do not boast in the Lord. Their boast is always in humans and human achievement.

Christian Humanism Is Simply Not Christian

Sure, many of these people are trying to follow the teaching, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if they are doing this without Jesus Christ as their Savior, without Jesus central in their lives, without Jesus dwelling within them, they are achieving nothing that pleases God (Hebrews 11:6). Without recognizing the wretched, sinful state of all humans and our need for salvation through Jesus Christ alone, we are unable to do good and can only do sin. Thus, loving our neighbor as our self, without trusting in Jesus Christ, is sin.

Writing in his popular book, The Philosophy of Humanism, humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont plainly disowns the possibility of Christian humanism. He saw that Christianity is incompatible with humanism: “Passing to the New Testament, we see plainly that its theology, taken literally, is totally alien to the Humanist viewpoint” (Amherst, NY: 1997; 55; found on the website).

Christian Humanism Makes Humans Central

Please don’t get me wrong. Christian humanism encompasses some principles that are, in fact, biblical and Christian when we properly understand them in their place. Good works, having compassion on others, respecting human dignity and value in light of the fact that we are made in God’s image, endeavoring to advance technology and medicine for the sake of improving the human condition, and so forth, can all be part of the Christian life. But they are the cart and not the horse. They are not to replace or even to overshadow the Gospel. They are all merely responses to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Unlike Christian humanism, true Christianity, at all times and in every way, centralizes Jesus Christ and His atoning work as our Savior. Humanism, even when it carries the label of Christian, by its very definition, centralizes humans.

Applying education, the intellect, and reason to the Scriptures, and then applying the Scriptures to life is entirely biblical, as long as we employ them rightly. And the only right way to employ them is to hold the Scriptures—the Word of God and, thus, the Word of Jesus Christ (John 5:24; 8:31-32; etc.)—as the supreme authority. Unfortunately, some Christians react to humanism by approaching the Scriptures in ignorance. This causes them to take verses out of context and interpret them hyper-literally. This is far from the approach that Jesus Christ would want. It is not the way to avoid heresy; it is the way to stumble into it.

It was Jesus who criticized the religious leaders of His day for their ignorance (Matthew 22:29; John 3:10) and for their literalism and blindness to biblical principles (Matthew 15:1-20; 23:16-23). Thus, it is Jesus who wants us to use our Spirit-guided intellect to understand biblical passages in their historical, grammatical and textual contexts. When we do this, however, we will see that the Scriptures do not centralize humanity. They are not a guidebook for learning how to be social justice warriors. The Word of God is about the Word of God—Jesus Christ (John 5:39; Luke 24:27). Any teaching that puts man first is heresy.

The Bible commends the Bereans for searching the Scriptures to see if what Paul was preaching was so (Acts 17:10-11). Paul himself tells us to judge his teaching (1 Corinthians 10:15), and he tells us that when people speak, the others (those who hear) are to judge or discern or scrutinize (diakrinō) what is said. John orders us to test the spirits, meaning that some speak by the Holy Spirit and some do not. The way to discern is by comparing what is said to Scripture.

Christian Humanism Is Another Gospel

If you listen discerningly, you will likely find that many are now speaking what is essentially a humanist Gospel. If their message is disconnected from human depravity and inability and our total dependence upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation, then they are speaking another gospel. If it is not centered on Jesus Christ, a sermon, broadcast, website, or book about self-improvement, human works, human goodness, man’s potential, the wonders of science, human freedom, obtaining justice, and even loving our neighbors is not Good News at all. It is bad news because it is founded on sand and will fall.

Make Jesus Christ central to all you do; make Him your rock and foundation, and you won’t go wrong. As for those who teach humanism, “After the first and second warning, avoid a man of heresy, knowing that such a one has been perverted and sins, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

[You may also be interested in reading: “‘My People Are Destroyed’–Lack of Discernment in Modern Christianity“]

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