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Churchianity or Christianity: The need for scriptural cultural theology

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The impact of the Christian faith upon the cultural history of the West is inescapably visible all around us, yet is currently under threat. Questions need to be answered. What is the nature of the relationship of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the society in which we live? What is the relationship of God’s Word-revelation to the Christian’s life in the world? Joe Boot introduces these questions in this first of a series of articles.

The impact of the Christian faith upon the cultural history of the West is inescapably visible all around us. From the church buildings in every Toronto city block, to the spires at the centre of every English village, the geography of town and country is testament to a once-vital faith. Indeed Christianity’s formative religious power is not just around us to observe in buildings and monuments, it continues to actually inhabit the people of the Western world, even when they are unaware of it, discreetly hidden in their language, customs and common assumptions. From some of the greatest works of art, literature, music, and architecture that the West ever produced, and which can still thrill the heart, to the names of hospitals and schools – in fact embedded in the mottos of some of the most prestigious universities – the cultural vestiges of Christianity are ubiquitous. And yet it is no longer controversial to assert that the Christian church has, for the most part, ceased to be a truly moving force in the affairs of Western civilisation. As the noted Christian philosopher Calvin Seerveld has put it, “a foreign dynamic and the neo-pagan spirit of the Renaissance is shaping the culture of the world at the moment…but because God and the church are dead to the world there has inevitably come an all-encompassing, frustrating loss of order, certainty and security in the world, and that is disturbing even to those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

In recent years, with this clear abandonment of a Christian vision for culture happening at a rapid pace all around us, and the insecurity it has produced, some Christians have been waking up to the fact that there is a pressing and vital question to be asked: what is the nature of the relationship of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the society in which we live? To state the question in a slightly different way, what is the relationship of God’s Word-revelation to the Christian’s life in the world? It is a sign of hope for the church that there are those who have begun to consider carefully again the character of the relationship between the gospel and culture – perhaps with a degree of urgency not seen in many years. It is a prescient issue, because the conclusions Christians reach will determine the essential character of the mission of God’s people in our day.

I say this renewed interest is a sign of hope because, generally speaking, and admitting of notable exceptions, this subject is one that Western evangelicals have not pursued with focused seriousness for several generations. As a result of this revived concern a fresh line of thought is opening up, calling forth an essentially new specialisation within theology – cultural theology.   As my colleague Andrew Sandlin ably explains the expanding opportunity:

An emerging specialty in theology is cultural theology. It is defined as the study of what God’s full revelation teaches about culture and applying that teaching to pressing cultural issues. Because the issues of our time have become specialized, the study of revelation must include a specialized concern for culture. Of course, culture has been around as long as man has, and therefore cultural theology is not a specialty whose need has only recently evolved. However, dramatic developments of culture in modern times (in, for example, ideology, technology, jurisprudence, medicine, economics, and the arts) press serious Christians for a coherent grasp of godly truth to address and govern them. For instance, what does God’s revelation have to say to the political views known as socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism? Or ideologies like Marxism, feminism, Islamism, transgenderism, and white privilege? What about new technologies like stem-cell research, genetic manipulation, cloning, transhumanism, and surrogate motherhood? Consider theories of law: originalism, progressivism, sociological law, utilitarian law, and natural law. These developments, contemporary or traditional, and many others require a distinctly Christian evaluation.

This need, for Christians to turn to God’s Word-revelation for clear guidance in such complex matters from the world of everyday cultural experience, simply expresses another aspect of the constant necessity for believers to be both informed – that is, inwardly guided from the centre of their being – and reformed, or reshaped, by God’s Word when our attitudes and thinking in any area of life are found contrary to that Word. In this case it must be asked how accurately our attitudes and thinking regarding the gospel’s relationship to culture reflects the teaching and concerns of God’s Word-revelation.

 

The unitive character of the Word of God: The three interrelated senses of the “Word of God”

To speak in this way about the Word-revelation of God is to confess that in every area of our lives, we are subject to that Word. That confession addresses three primary realities. First, we are subject to the creation Word of God which called all things into being and holds all things together. We daily encounter the power and glory of God’s Word for creation. Creation is a concretisation or instantiation of the powerful Word of God. In it we discern laws and norms that God has established for all creation from the very beginning. The mediator of that creation Word is the eternal Son (John 1:1-5). Secondly, Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. As the second person of the godhead, He is the historical manifestation of the Word through whom all things were made. And thirdly the Bible holds a central place in the Christian life because it is the inscripturated Word of God that tells us of the person of Christ, his creative and redemptive work in history, republishing the norms of the creation Word so as to make crystal clear in a fallen world what God requires of us.

All three of these manifestations of the Word of God are involved in each other, presuppose one another, and cannot be artificially divided or separated from one another as we address the relationship of God’s Word to culture; in fact they cannot be properly understood except as a unity within a coherence of meaning established for creation by God. For example, we see in all forms of false teaching that a Christ separated from his creative work and the scriptures produces an imaginary Jesus in the likeness of sinful man’s desires. Equally, the Bible abstracted from the concrete world of creation and history or from the living and resurrected Lord is reduced to just another piece of human literature. In the same way a cosmic order separated from the eternal Son of God and his inscripturated Word is reduced by philosophers and scientists to a mass of sensory data (or ‘brute facts’) and formal abstract ideas impervious to true interpretation without unity or coherence of meaning. To properly understand God’s world we need both the Word incarnate and inscripturated, otherwise the criterion for true insight into the meaning of all things is lost. The unity of God’s Word to us in creational and redemptive revelation speaks volumes about the undivided character of our calling in the world in terms of that Word.

The need for a scriptural theology and philosophy of culture

Because the Word of God is of this creative, formative and unitive character, it is that which must constitute the foundation of all truly Christian thought for each area of life. This is crucial because many of the questions being raised by cultural theologians are not typically those of the more familiar disciplines like dogmatic or systematic theology. Some might say that these questions belong equally, or perhaps particularly, to the domain of philosophy and are therefore part of the task of developing a Christian philosophy of life and culture. I am not concerned to quibble over these classifications except to suggest that the questions dealt with in theology and philosophy cannot be neatly separated from each other into hermetically sealed domains that never touch or overlap. This is because theology will always be carried out in terms of underlying concepts and categories of thought that have a philosophical and religious character. Underlying both disciplines – theology and philosophy – is a fundamental religious orientation and faith perspective that for the Christian must be controlled and directed by the Word of God. Moreover, it is a grave mistake to think that it is only the professional theologians who can have genuine access to the truth of the Word and be permitted to apply it to the world.

Philosophy, looking at the totality of reality, asks about the true nature, origin and relationship of all things and events – Scripture declares the fundamental answer to that question, which answer must govern Christian thought in philosophy. At the same time, Christians need to grapple with all the particular challenges within the culture from a robustly scriptural standpoint, and so must examine the biblical material as a starting point. And so in a very real way, the task before the church is one of developing a faithful cultural theology, because we are dealing with our faith, the teaching of Scripture and our confession of Christ as these relate to the culture around us. Christian theology and philosophy need to work together, in submission to God’s inscripturated Word, in this endeavor. So whether we characterise this task as working out a scriptural cultural theology or philosophy is less important than articulating clearly for the church in our time the relationship of God’s Word and gospel to culture itself. Until we do that there will be confusion in the church about the Christian mission and an ongoing decline of the impact of our faith on society.

Read Part 2.

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