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"SCHULLER'S CULT OF POSSIBILITY THINKING!"
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
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.
SUCCESS AND POSSIBILITY THINKING
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
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
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.
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