AUTHOR: Trott, Jon
PUBLISHED ON: May 1, 2003

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          Taken from an article in the magazine: “CORNERSTONE”

                            Vol. 12 Issue 68

                          Written by: JON TROTT

  An exterior shot:  a glass pyramid,  rising upward  to  pierce 
heaven.  Man’s  finger touching God’s,  Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel
portrait with the order reversed.  Interior shot:  a  slow  pan  from 
the  hundreds  of ultra-modern  white  girders holding up the glass
“ceiling” to a choir and gigantic organ which, on cue, begin singing and
playing.  Close-up: Robert Schuller of Garden Grove,  California’s
Crystal Cathedral,  reaches toward the camera and encourages the watcher
to become a possibility thinker,  “a somebody in a world of  too  many 
nobodies,  a  success  in  a  crowd  of failures.”
  For  evangelical  and  charismatic believers Robert Schuller is a
well- known personality.  Thousands attend his Crystal Cathedral, while
millions view Hour of Power,  which according to the Nielson ratings, 
reaches more people  than any comparable program.  Since 1970 more than
twenty thousand pastors  have  attended  Schuller’s  Institute  for 
Successful  Church Leadership.  As has been said, success is its own
best argument. 
  On  a  deeper  level,  however,  Robert Schuller’s emphasis on
personal success and self-esteem has caused  consternation  and 
controversy  among Christian theologians and philosophers. 


  Robert Schuller’s  possibility  thinking  message  makes  him  the
most believable and likeable success evangelist in America:
  “Here’s how it works.  When a person begins to believe it just might
be possible, somehow, someway, somewhere, someday – then in that magic
moment of Possibility Thinking three  miracles  occur:  (1) 
Opportunity-spotting brain  cells  activate!  (2)  Problem-solving brain
cells come to life (3) Determination-energizing chemicals are released
into the blood stream!”
  Heady stuff, and Rev. Schuller  goes on to claim that God has
fantastic dreams  for  each  one  of us,  but that impossibility
thinking blocks our ability to make them realities.  So, “Stop running
away from opportunities and possibilities!  Run toward fulfillment,
actualization, and success!”
  Success is inevitably big and visible.  “You  are  suddenly 
catapulted into  the spotlight.  The attention is never on the
comfortable spectator, but on the energetic chance-taker in the center
ring.  And the bigger  the gamble,  the  bigger the crowd of onlookers. 
It is the risk-running racer on the track,  not the hot-dog-eating 
grandstand  sitter  that  gets  the attention, the applause, the
encouragement, and finally, the prize.”
  Schuller’s  own  successes via possibility thinking range from the
gift of a new Lincoln luxury car to his various building projects  (the 
newest of  which  is  a  scripture-studded  sidewalk around the Crystal
Cathedral dubbed the “Walk of Faith.”)
  Adding to possibility thinking  Rev. Schuller  in  1969  wrote, 
“Every negative thinker I have ever met distrusts himself, belittles
himself, and downgrades  himself.  This  lack  of self-worth lies at the
root of almost every one  of  our  personal  problems.”  The  subject 
of  self-love,  or self-esteem became “something greater than
possibility thinking.”
  Setting  a  prelude  for  what  was  some  thirteen years later to be
a theological showdown,  Rev. Schuller claimed,  “if your  job  is  to 
save souls,  you  can  do  this  when  you  liberate  them  from  the 
sin  of self-degradation and lift them to salvation and self-esteem.
    Come  to  the  understanding  that  self-will  is  sin,  self-love 
is salvation!”  Schuller continues, noting that  self-love or  self-
esteem is in  fact  “the deeper  ultimate will”  of mankind,  worded in
1982 as “the deepest of all human needs.”
  In  that  year,  “after  32  years  of  thinking,  praying, 
testing, retesting,” Rev. Schuller published  his definitive theological
statement, SELF ESTEEM: THE NEW REFORMATION.  Chapter one sets the tone:
  “What the Church needs, more than anything else,  is a new reformation
– nothing  less  will  do!  Without  a  new  theological reformation, 
the Christian church as the authentic body of Christ may not
survive…Martin Luther faced this haunting and recurring question: 

  `Am I alone right and all the rest of the church wrong?'”
  At numerous points he labels the reformation led by Luther and Calvin
a “reactionary movement,” and observes “that classical theology has
erred in its insistence that theology be `God-centered’ not `man-
  Sin and salvation are redefined by  Schuller  to  fit  the  self-
esteem model.  The classical definition of sin as “rebellion against
God” is,  we are told,  “not so much incorrect as it is shallow and 
insulting  to  the human  being.”  The  problem  is  rooted  in  “the 
failure  of historical theology” to differentiate between “Adam’s sin”
and “original sin.”  While Adam  sinned knowingly,  constituting a sin
of rebellion against God,  the children of Adam were born non-trusting. 
“By nature we are  fearful,  not bad.”
  To  illustrate,  Schuller  utilizes  what  might  be  called  golf
ball theology.  The outer coating of white,  hard  plastic  he  likens 
to  the rebellious,  disobedient acts man performs, “the externality of
sin.”  The real core,  the small hard rubber ball,  is man’s  “negative 
self-image.” Stretched  rubber  bands  wrapped  tightly  around  the 
golf  ball’s core represent  “negative  reactions”  or  “anxieties, 
fears,  and  negative emotions”  which  finally  appear as outward acts
of rebellion,  though in reality go back to non-trust. 
  What we need in light of this,  then,  according  to  Schuller,  “is 
a theology  of  salvation  that  begins and ends with a recognition of
every person’s hunger for glory.”
  “What does it mean to be saved?”  Rev. Schuller  asks, then answers
his own  question.  “It means to be permanently lifted from sin
(psychological self-abuse with all of its  consequences  as  seen 
above)  and  shame  to self-esteem and its God-glorifying human need-
meeting,  constructive,  and creative consequences.”
  Or,  for another definition,  “To be born again means that we  must 
be changed  from  a  negative  to a positive self-image – from
inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust.”

                      SELF-ESTEEM AND THE GOSPEL

  What  influences  have  shaped  Rev. Schuller’s  theology?  To  gain 
a well-rounded  view,  we  talked  with  four  prominent Christian
thinkers: Norman Geisler,  author of numerous philosophical works,  and
professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary;  Paul
Vitz,  associate professor of psychology at New York University,  and
author of  Psychology as  Religion: The  Cult of Self-Worship;  Elliot
Miller,  senior  literary consultant  for  Christian  Research 
Institute  (CRI),  an  organization dedicated  to  the critique of
cults and new religious movements;  William Kirk Kilpatrick,  associate
professor of educational psychology at  Boston College,  and  author  of 
Psychological Seduction: The Failure of  Modern Psychology. 
  For  the one  man  who  has  most  influenced  Rev. Schuller  there 
is unanimous  agreement.  Says  Elliot Miller,  “Schuller  recognizes 
Norman Vincent Peale as a primary source of inspiration for his own 
`possibility thinking’  ideas.  Peale  in  turn was influenced by the
founders of Unity School  of  Christianity,  and  Ernest Holmes,  the 
father  of  Religious Science.  On  the back cover of a biography 
entitled,  Ernest Holmes: His Life and Times,  Peale wrote,  `Only those
who knew me as a boy can  fully appreciate  what  Ernest Holmes  did 
for me.  Why,  he made me a positive thinker.'” Miller concludes,  “What
Schuller is preaching can historically be traced to the mind science
  On  the  other  hand,  Miller does not believe Schuller has a clear-
cut panthestic theology such as Mary Baker Eddy’s or the  Fillmores’ 
(Unity’s founders).  “He does have those tendencies,  but I don’t think
he develops it into a full-blown metaphysic.  His main problem is that
he’s trying  to conform  the  Bible  to  a  positive  thinking approach
to life instead of allowing his positive message to be shaped by the
Bible.  If  you  take  a pre-established  approach and shape the Bible
to it,  what you end up with is a really bad distortion.  That’s what
he’s done.”
  At the  center  of  that  distortion,  according  to  Norm Geisler, 
is Schuller’s  concept  of  sin.  “When  Schuller  defines sin as the
lack of self-esteem,  that’s an existential definition  not  a  moral 
definition.  He’s  cast  the  gospel  in terms of psychology and
philosophy rather than terms of morality.  Sin is a moral rebellion
against a moral God,  and  to neglect  or  diminish that element of sin
is not to preach the true gospel of the New Testament. 
  “Heidegger and Bultmann make statements like Schuller’s `Man isn’t
bad, just fearful.’ The whole sense of `angst,’ or `dread,’ an
objectless fear, that’s typical modern  existentialist  language.  The 
existential  gospel says  man  is  finite  and  insecure  and needs
cosmic help.  That’s quite different than man is sinful and rebellious
and needs moral deliverence.”
  Paul Vitz  points  out  the  peculiarly  American  strains  in 
Rev.  Schuller’s  ideas.  “American  existentialism  is optimistic, 
European is pessimistic,  but the assumptions  are  the  same.  A  lot 
of  Schuller’s self-esteem  thought  has  come from American optimism
about the self-made man.  Obviously,  if one of the important ways
you’re supposed to be  made is  to be saved,  you’re the self-made man. 
It appeals to our vanity,  or basically, our narcissism.”
  There is common agreement among all those interviewed that salvation
is the bottom line.  “The way he defines the  new  bith,  it  sounds 
like  a psychological  process,  not  a  supernatural  process,” 
observes Miller.  “Naturally people love it because he doesn’t preach
about  sin,  judgment, or anything negative, just about your own
  “He’s  reduced  Christianity to popular terminology and thereby
reduced the offense of the gospel,” says Geisler. “But to avoid the
offense of the gospel you have to avoid the gospel.  If you’re not a
sinner, you can’t be saved.  Going from a state of insecurity to a state
of security,  even  if Christ  happens  to be your cosmic Linus blanket, 
is not going to get you saved.”
  “The precondition for the Gospel is knowing you’re in  moral 
rebellion against  the  God who is there,  and therefore stand condemned
before him.  Otherwise  the  cross  of  Christ  doesn’t  make  any 
sense  –  its  full significance  is robbed.”  Elliot Miller adds, “The
whole biblical idea of the glory of God being the primary  concern  is 
missing  from  Schuller’s theology.” 
    None  of  those interviewed felt Rev. Schuller  was being
intentionally aberrant in his theology.  “His motives  may  be  good, 
and  his  efforts noble,” notes Geisler.  “Sincerity’s not a test for
truth, however, and if people don’t know more when they hear him,  its
questionable whether  they will be able to come to the point of
salvation.  I do know,  though, there are follow-up programs in his
church,  where people get more  deeply  into the Scriptures.”
  One  lesson  is  well  articulated by Geisler.  “We need to examine
any teaching we hear in light of the Scriptures as the Bereans did in
Acts 16.  We should ask not `How sincere are the people?’ or  `How  many 
are  being reached  and  helped?’  but `What precisely is the gospel
being preached?’ It’s one thing to cloak the moral gospel in
psychological terms so  people can understand it, it’s another thing to
reduce it to these terms.”
  Paul Vitz finds a lesson tinged with positive aspects. “One of the
main appeals  to  Schuller’s  message which is legitimate but needs to
be dealt with differently is that the result of being a Christian should
be a  life of joy.  It’s not the joy of self-salvation;  it’s the joy of
being saved.  It’s the difference between the receipt of an  enormous, 
undeserved,  and glorious  gift,  and  the  self-satisfaction that comes
from having done a good job on your own, which is at the center of

                          WHAT ARE WORDS FOR?

  Perhaps the great truth illustrated by  the problems in Rev.
Schuller’s theology  is  this:  When  words are stripped of their
historical meaning, they lose all meaning. 
  A general example might be the scripture, “God is love.”  When 
someone mentions  that  God  is love,  the hearer may be emotionally
blessed.  But what does “God” mean?  Jehovah or Maharaj Ji?  And what
does “love”  mean?  Anything  from  Paul’s  definitions  in 1
Corinthians 13 to Bob Guccione’s definition in Penthouse magazine.  The
end result?  Meaninglessness. 
  So it goes with Schuller’s redefinition of sin, and his muddying of
the historical meaning of salvation.  Christianity threatens to become
nothing more than what Francis Schaeffer  called “God-words,”  terms 
that  sound Christian but mean whatever the hearer wants them to. 
  It is important for us as believers to respect biblical authority, 
and in its historical context.  At bottom this  is  the  reason  we 
must  not accept  a  gospel emphasizing salvation without sovereignty, 
taking words filled with power and vital  meaning  and  squeezing  them 
into  whatever cultural  mold  lies  closest at hand.  The Bible reveals
the only reality there is,  and though the two-edged sword sometimes
cuts its wearer,  it’s only  because we need the stinging healing God’s
Word brings.  If the Word is only words,  it has no edge.  The Gospel
becomes a self-serving  gospel of shallow emotionalism. 
  Robert Schuller  has  sincerely  erred,  and  those  of us who might
be filled with self-righteous indignation would do  well  to  remember 
where righteousness  comes  from.  We  should  pray  and  write  Rev.
Schuller, lovingly pointing out his errors  in  mixing  Scripture  with 
psychology.  Finally,  we  should  look to ourselves that our faith is
not corrupted by the  leavening  influence  of  secular  culture,  but 
influenced  by  the unchanging Word of God. 

                              End of Text

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