Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.

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*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.

On Disciplined Reading (2): What Should I Read? Choosing from a Vast Array of Options

Determining what to read is more than a little important. Of the many books in any given library or bookstore, most can be left unread without any fear of intellectual or moral deprivation. Even (and sometimes especially) the bestsellers are not necessarily worth reading. So what should a seminary student read? Without being able to answer this question in specific, because each person’s callings, abilities, and tastes are unique, I will attempt to give some general principles that should apply to all.

The first principle is to guard your time in the Scriptures. There are hundreds of millions of books, but only one book inspired by God. Be careful that, in your reading, you do not neglect the reading of God’s Word. Each person has his own method. For me, the most helpful method is to choose a book of the Bible and read through it several times, outlining it, meditating on it, and applying it to my life. Usually, I will select a commentary to read at the same time. Usually, I choose a commentary or study help that is pastoral in nature. I want to read something that aims to convict me and rouse me to action rather than merely to inform me.

A second principle is to avoid limiting yourself by era, tribe, or category. (1) Push beyond the limits of your era, refusing the chronological snobbery of limiting yourself to books written in the late 20th and early 21st century. Read old books. Put down Grisham and Geisler and pick up Augustine, Dante, and Lewis. (2) Read outside of the parameters of your tribe. By this I mean that you will benefit from reading people who are not just like yourself. Over the long haul, you want to read books by authors who are not Christian, evangelical, Baptist, or American. (3) Expand your reading beyond the limits of a familiar category. If you read mostly theology, try something new and read some missiology or church history. If you always read non-fiction, buy a good novel or two. If you read mostly “practical” books, put them down and read a good work of theology (you’ll find that a good theology is the most practical thing a person could have).

A third principle: reading the great authors is more helpful than reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that you might want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that you have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Philip Yancey is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times. If you are Baptist (or even if you are not), you are well-served to purchase and read Dagg’s Manual of Theology and Boyce’s Abstracts, and you cannot allow yourself to neglect Hubmaier’s “On the Christian Baptism of Believers.”

A fourth principle: make a list of categories and read a selected number of books each year, in each category. My list includes the following categories: theology, biblical studies, missiology, philosophy, history and current affairs, international affairs, and fiction. These categories are weighted according to what I am teaching during a particular semester and according to interest, but each semester I try to several from each category, with fiction being the possible exception.

A fifth principle: read a few select journals and magazines. During my time in the Ph.D. program at SEBTS, I began receiving First Things, a journal dealing with any and all issues at the intersection of religion and public life. Since then, I have also begun receiving Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books. While First Things provides me with a lively discussion of religion and public life, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy allows me to keep track of international affairs, The Atlantic Monthly allows a peek into things that are of interest to the broader culture, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books serve notice of a wide array of recently published books. The Economist provides the reader with an avalanche of concise articles on matters of interest across the globe and across various sectors of society. Other periodicals worth the read are Books & Culture and Touchstone. Your list will not be the same as mine; browse Barnes & Noble and find some magazines and journals that help you stay abreast of the rest of the world.

Gospel, Church, and City (4): The Gospel Produces Missional Planters & Churches

In the fourth session of the Greenhouse Church Planter’s CoOp, we talked about building missional churches in the 21st century post-Christendom contexts. Again, we used some passages from Keller’s Manual as starting points for our discussion.

At the beginning of the session, we talked about how we minister in the context of a dying Christendom. Christendom was marked by “cultural Christianity” in which American social institutions often stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior. Christendom provided some advantages (such as a common language for social and moral discourse) and some disadvantages (Christian moral principles without gospel-changed hearts). Nonetheless, we increasingly recognize that we must change our Christendom-style assumptions. We cannot assume that people have heard the gospel, understand our vocabulary, will show up at our church services, etc. As we discard certain past assumptions, we must remind ourselves that:

A missional church draws people into the biblical narrative. In Christendom, the church could exhort “Christianized” people to do what they already know they should do. In a post-Christendom context, however, people do not understand or subscribe to the biblical narrative of the world. They must be taught and persuaded that the biblical narrative is the True Story of the world. Therefore, A missional church pays close attention to the surrounding culture (people and their conversations, music, movies, literature, etc.), seeking to understand its questions, felt needs, hopes, dreams, heroes, and fears. In so doing, the missional church will better be able to position that culture’s story within the True Story of the world, the narrative of God’s redemption. Augustine’s City of God is a fine example of how to do this.

A missional church speaks the language of the people. In Christendom, American culture was more monolithic and there was not as much difference between language inside and outside of the church. The current American context, however, is marked by multiple cultures and a dizzying variety of sub-cultures. The majority of these cultures and subcultures have not been exposed to the biblical narrative or to church language. Therefore, the missional church seeks to (as Keller puts it) avoid tribal language, “we-them” language, and sentimental or pompous inspirational talk in the pulpit. In particular, a missional preacher avoids talking as if non-believing people are not present. Until he does so, non-believing people are less likely to come and less likely to understand or be persuaded if they do come. In a nutshell, missional churches are adept at cross-cultural communication: they learn to communicate the gospel in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures and meaningful to the cultural context.

A missional church is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. In Christendom, Christian fellowship focused on support and accountability. In a post-Christendom context, however, Christians realize that they must embody a Christian “counter-culture.” The missional church redefines absolutely everything in life, including the three biggies: sex, money, and power. The church redefines sex: Keller writes, “We avoid both the secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life-patterns are different.” The church redefines money: Keller writes, “We promote a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, and the economically and physically weak.” The church redefines power: Keller writes, “We are committed to power-sharing and relationship-building between races and classes that are alienated outside of the Body of Christ.” The missional church defies categories such as “conservative” or “liberal” because it is more committed to evangelism and conversion than liberal churches and more committed to culture work (mercy ministries, vocation, culture work) than conservatives. This counter-cultural and counter-intuitive church is the only type of church that will succeed in making much of Jesus.

A missional church trains people to glorify God in all of their callings. In Christendom, the church simply trained people in prayer, Bible study, and witnessing techniques (such as wearing t-shirts that say “I’m cross-eyed,” or giving out Test-a-mints, or consoling people with clichés such as “Any time God shuts a door, he opens a window”). In a post-Christendom context, however, the church realizes that she must train her people to live “Christianly” in all of life. The missional church is full of lay people who renew their city and community by fulfilling their callings in a uniquely Christian manner. Martin Luther is a good guide here; his sermons are replete with references to a Christian’s callings to family, church, workplace, and community. Gene Veith’s God at Work is a very helpful and slim little book that teaches us how to unleash the church and the gospel through a Christian’s callings. This is the church scattered.

A missional church trains people to glorify God in all dimensions of society and culture. In Christendom, the various spheres of culture reflected (however imperfectly) a Christianized culture. In a post-Christendom context, the church realizes that she must train her people to work out the implications of the gospel in all dimensions of society and culture. Her people must consciously hold to a Christian world-and-life-view. A missional church (as Keller puts it) encourages her laypeople to venture forth humbly and boldly as Christians into the arts, the sciences, government, media, business, and education. A missional church demonstrates biblical love and true “tolerance” in the public square.

A missional church is characterized by love for those with whom they disagree. In Christendom, everybody was a “Christian.” For this reason, churches focused on defining themselves in contrast to other churches. In a post-Christendom context, however, churches find it more illuminating and helpful to define itself in contrast to “the world.” While we hold to our doctrinal convictions and limit our cooperation in various ways, we seek to love and reach out to other congregations in our local area so as to bear witness of our love for one another to a watching world.