Salvation or therapeutics?

July 4th, 2012

Will Jesus return? Christians expect him to, based on the Bible. Christian Scientists don’t, based on Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. Her own appearing and lifework, she indicates, fulfilled his promise of reappearing.

The consequences of believing that are profound. They bear upon who he was or was not; whether any of his promises can be relied on, or the Bible itself; what we can or cannot expect from him in time or eternity. This essay will explore some of those consequences.

Studying in Luke the other day, I came to the divine commission pronounced by the old priest Zacharias upon his newborn son, who would become John the Baptist: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1: 76, 77, KJV).

Because I still read each morning from the same Bible my parents gave me when I was an earnest young Christian Scientist just out of college, there are many notations dating from my years of correlating Scripture with the Eddy teachings. Next to this passage was jotted a citation from her Message to The Mother Church for 1902, page 16.

There I found Mrs. Eddy’s account of how God had “whispered” to her the name “Science and Health” for the untitled book she had been working on, and how gratified she was when later seeing that identical phrase in John Wyclif’s early translation of the New Testament into English, where it stands as his rendering of the Luke 1:77 words, “knowledge of salvation.”

What are we to make of this? The thought is just dropped there, amidst a 20-page ramble of many other thoughts, and not worked out. But it suggests that as of 1902, the Leader of Christian Science was inclined to view her textbook as a sort of second coming of John the Baptist. If that were the case, Science and Health would be in the position of a modern-day forerunner to Jesus, not a rival or replacement or successor for him. Hmmm.

Muddled and misleading as the claimed equivalence of the two phrases might be – and more about that in a moment – this would be more theologically tolerable than Mrs. Eddy’s broad hint a couple of years earlier (Message to The Mother Church for 1900, p. 6) that Science and Health might well be the second coming of Christ, since “some modern exegesis on the prophetic Scriptures cites 1875 as the year” of that occurrence – and “in that year the Christian Science textbook… was first published.”

This stupendous claim echoed a similar assertion she had made in 1891: “The second appearing of Jesus is, unquestionably, the spiritual advent of the advancing idea of God, as in Christian Science” (Retrospection and Introspection, p. 70). And much the same identification of her work with the Lord’s return appears at least twice within the pages of Science and Health itself.

There she first reads the parable of leaven placed by a woman into three measures of meal as “foretelling the second appearing in the flesh of the Christ, Truth,” and she interprets those three measures to signify science, theology, and medicine (SH p. 118).

Then later in the same chapter on Science, Theology, and Medicine, she says that the widespread contemporary demonstration of “the healing power of Truth… as an immanent, eternal Science” amounts to nothing less than “the coming anew of the gospel of ‘on earth peace, good-will toward men'” (SH p. 150).

And to whom did that gospel in its first coming pertain? To no one other than Jesus Christ, of course – Mary’s child and God’s only begotten son.

So we find that in offering her “key to the Scriptures,” Mrs. Eddy did not directly reject or reinterpret the clear promises of Jesus’ literal and physical second coming that are given with his own words in Matthew 26:64 and with the angel’s words in Acts 1:11. Rather she simply ignored those texts and substituted her own semi-mystical insinuations (obliquely leading the reader, never quite blunt) about 1875 as the end times and herself with a central role therein. Quite extraordinary when you think about it, really.

Was it actually a cult to end all cults that she set out to establish, a system “undoubtedly… destined to become the one and the only religion and therapeutics on this planet” (Miscellany, p. 266), in which she would fulfill prophecy as the anointed revelator? Or was she simply “a willing disciple at the heavenly gate” (SH p. ix), the founder and first among equals in an evangelically-inclined “church without creeds… which should reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing” (Manual, p. 17)?

I honestly don’t think she herself knew which of these guiding visions was decisive with her from one day to the next. Charitably we can say it may indeed have been the second, more modest one. But it is clear (or she would not written as she repeatedly did) that the more grandiose vision tempted Mrs. Eddy powerfully, and at last fatally. Satan desired (as the Lord warned Simon Peter, Luke 22:31) to have her and to sift her – and in this he was, I sadly conclude, at least partly successful.

But let me add this: If you are reading this and you are a Christian Scientist, an Eddy follower, the Adversary’s success with her can be turned here and now into his failure and defeat with you. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:9).

If you are reading this and you are a former Christian Scientist, now a follower of Jesus alone, join me in praying that the enemy’s grip over this and this and this one who wordlessly yearn to be saved can be broken, stripped, swept away at this moment.

What do those words mean, after all: “to be saved”? Salvation is defined by Mrs. Eddy in the glossary of her textbook as, in part, Life understood and sickness destroyed (SH p. 593). On that basis one might plausibly equate the two phrases with which we began this discussion, “knowledge of salvation” thus becoming synonymous with “science and health.”

But what if, on the other hand, you and I as descendants of Adam and Eve are far too lost and bent and broken to ever straighten ourselves out by thinking better?

What if we’re all sinners in need of a savior, and that savior was (still is, will always be) the one and only Lamb of God proclaimed by John the Baptist, the crucified and risen and soon-returning Jesus Christ, God incarnate from the Virgin’s womb?

In that case, salvation means infinitely more than can even be remotely approximated by a scientific system for bodily health. In that case Wyclif’s rendering of Luke 1:77 was no more than a linguistic misstep, eventually set right by the King James translators, however much Mrs. Eddy may have wished it otherwise.

Then finally, to conclude, consider just how well the title she gave Science and Health, whether God-whispered or merely thought up, does in fact describe the book’s main thrust and the main thrust of her movement for 150 years.

Do the book and its devotees seek to honor God and to live holy lives? Indeed so. But is not Christian Science primarily a scientific system for realizing bodily health (and overall wellbeing) by thinking better? Indeed so again. Undeniably so.

Try as she might to dress up that system as the Baptist’s salvation-heralding message revived in America, the Bethlehem gospel come anew in Boston, Mrs. Eddy’s followers then and now have always really measured its value in therapeutics. She specifically urged them to.

Think of the stopper you get without fail from a Christian Scientist when trying to show him or her who Jesus is and why the Cross matters and how Science and Health misrepresents those things: “But it heals,” they insist; “it works.” As if that settles the whole matter; and for them it does.

“Ye seek me,” said Jesus to the crowds, “not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26). Scientists may say this does not apply to them at all, since Jesus’ signs and “demonstrations” do interest them greatly; but I believe it applies with exactness.

To Mrs. Eddy and her followers, the miraculous signs are of interest only because they point to divine Principle and impersonal Science, not because they confirm Jesus as Lord of his own creation and personal Savior – the confirmation he cited to his cousin John (Matthew 11:4).

My Christian Scientist friends may feel wounded to have me suggest that their fidelity to the Eddy system results mainly from having “eaten of the loaves and been filled.” No offense is meant. I am just trying to make sense of the way you believe and act (the same way I once believed and acted).

It baffles and saddens me that when we who follow Jesus begin to reason with you about his invitation to the great supper at which one can eat of his very flesh and blood and come into eternal life, your reply tends to be, “I have bought a piece of ground… have me excused” (Luke 14:18).

In other words, it seems you are so invested in something that yields earthly provision, that you don’t care to join the Son of God for a heavenly feast.

“I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus in Revelation 3:20. “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Are you indifferent to his knock and his voice, I wonder, or don’t you even hear them? Probably the latter.

Jesus offers you salvation, and we who follow him do our best to present that offer in language you can understand – but you speak another language that has defined salvation down to mean therapeutics and little more.

You follow a leader who has reworded Scripture into her own foreign tongue beyond anything Wyclif or Tyndale ever attempted. So even as we talk to each other with all the goodwill in the world – and goodwill you have in plenty, no one can doubt that – you and I only talk past each other. It’s heartbreaking.

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