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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."


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



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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