Posted on September 28, 2013
No one can deny that we live in a time of drastic, even chaotic, cultural transition. Not merely the wide acceptance of homosexual and lesbian marriage, but also the growing hostility of the populace toward biblical Christianity and Christians and the drift of Christian churches and other institutions into what Francis A. Schaeffer termed “accommodation with the world spirit” are now stark realities. Religious persecution is on the rise, not just in Muslim and Marxist cultures, but also in the secular West. If we looked only at these trends, we’d likely be overcome with pessimism.
But a heartening counter-trend has emerged: a minority but increasing number of Christians cognizant that our culture is engaged in a moral suicide mission and won’t stand for it any longer. They are disturbed by the dishonor our culture brings to the name of Jesus Christ. They are arming themselves to combat this cultural blasphemy. We Christians live in what Thomas R. Schreiner has called “an eschatological war zone.” The holy powers of the world to come have invaded the evil powers of the present world in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is why Paul writes (Eph. 6:10f.) that we don’t battle against flesh and blood but against the demonic powers of this age. We must not shrink from the implications of this biblical truth: in resisting secularism, illicit sexualization, socialism, multiculturalism, radical feminism, video-game machismo, and the other cultural evils of our time, we aren’t chiefly combating fellow humans, but Satan and his minions. Let’s not succumb to a soft-core naturalism that strategizes with humanity alone in mind. We are fighting a supernatural battle with supernatural enemies; we must fight with supernatural weapons. The stakes are huge. We are battling for God’s good creation. More importantly, we are battling for God’s honor. We are destined to win, but there are no victories without battles.
Ours is the eschatological war zone.
Posted on September 17, 2013
The letter below is a response to a dear friend who inquired whether it’s permissible for Christians to share meals in their home with professed Christian family members living in open rebellion against God’s moral truth.
That’s a great but complex question, one to which I’ve given serious thought over the years, but I’ll take a stab at it.
The text you are alluding to is 1 Corinthians 5:11 —
“But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.”
If we read that verse without context, we might get the idea that Paul is forbidding having common meals with disobedient believers (or rebels who claim to be believers). But 1 Corinthians 5 in its entirety seems to me to be about what we nowadays term excommunication. Paul uses the metaphor of leaven (vv. 6–8), teaching that if the pastors ignore unrepentant, persistent sin, the church body as a whole will gradually contaminate. He might also have used the metaphor John uses in 1 John 1 — sin breaks communion with God, and since the Lord’s Supper in the Bible celebrates communion not simply with our Lord but also our sisters and brothers (1 Cor. 10:16–17), for pastors to allow open rebellion is to impair the body’s unity.
Because much of the church today (not —-!) has such an impoverished view of communion, when they read texts like 1 Corinthians 5:11, they think it can only have in mind common household meals, which I think it does not. A revival of weekly communion and sensitizing Christians to its importance would help us to properly interpret scriptures like this and others.
But that doesn’t settle your vital question. The Bible warns (2 Jn. 10) about permitting false teachers into our homes. Unrepentant (notably immoral) Christians are not identical to false teachers, but it’s clear from this text that when we invite people into our homes for meals we are extending an invitation that implies an endorsement of some sort (this was particularly true in the ancient Near East, where hospitality was a social imperative, not just a Christian virtue). In Ephesians 5:2–13 Paul even implies that if we don’t rebuke the unrepentant whom we encounter, we’re participating in their sin. This is not a popular idea in a pluralistic culture, but it is the Bible’s idea.
This all means, it seems to me, that while the Bible doesn’t specifically forbid common home meals with professed Christians living in rebellion, in no way can we give them or anyone else the impression that we condone their sin; and if having a common meal in your home will imply an endorsement, you simply cannot do it. If, conversely, you make very clear to the rebels as well as other family members that you do not endorse this rebellion, I am not sure the Bible forbids such a meal.
I sure hope this helps. I’ll be praying.
Much respect, in Him,
P. Andrew Sandlin
Posted on September 12, 2013
Hello Andrew. I know you’re not running an advice column, but I was hoping you could help me out anyway. I’ve been going to my church for 5 yrs now and I love it, but as I get closer with some of my fellow members I realize a lot of them drink alcohol. They never get drunk but will have an occasional drink at dinner. This is completely new to me and how I was raised. They have never even heard it was a sin. Where does the Bible stand on social drinking. My pastor does not drink, but I’ve never heard him preach completely against it. I’m afraid I might have been raised a legalistic.
It does my heart so good to hear from you after so long, and especially to hear that you’re still following the Lord after all these years. God bless you and your dear family!
You pose a good question, and I’ll try to answer it simply and plainly from the Bible.
The Bible warns against drunkenness (what we today, in our compromise with sin, often call “alcohol dependency”) — Paul says this plainly in Ephesians 1:19 (see also 1 Peter. 4:3). A graphic picture of the tragic effects of drunkenness is found in Proverbs 3:29–35. Paul even warns that drunkards can’t enter the Lord’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:10). This doesn’t mean they can’t become Christians (see v. 11a), or that they can’t fall into sin (1 Jn. 1:8–9), only that they can’t persist in their alcoholism and expect to enter heaven.
But the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking all alcohol under all conditions, and this is easy to prove. God allowed old covenant Israel to turn their rejoicing tithe into “strong drink” and consume it before him (Dt. 14:26). “Strong drink” here likely included the higher alcohol content akin to what we today call whiskey — not only lower-alcohol-content beer or wine.
In Leviticus 10:9 Moses warned Aaron and his sons not to drink wine or strong drink when they entered the tabernacle to do their service as priests. If God prohibited all alcohol consumption, these limited prohibitions would have been unnecessary. The same logic is true of pastors and deacons in the NT (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 2:3). Why would God limit drinking alcohol for church officers under certain conditions if he prohibited it for all people at all times? God’s reason seems to be that he doesn’t want his spiritual leaders impaired by alcohol’s effects as they serve in their office.
And then there’s Romans 14:21. Paul has been arguing that he’s willing to surrender certain permissible actions if they truly cause a brother or sister to stumble in the Faith. He includes drinking wine in this class. Obviously, if God prohibited wine, he wouldn’t need to say this. Some people say that wine is equivalent to grape juice, but this doesn’t make sense. Why would anybody object to drinking grape juice? And the fact is that grape juice as a separate beverage wasn’t available in the ancient world. They didn’t have the refrigeration techniques we do today to keep it from fermenting. It’s true that people could drink the juice of immediately squeezed grapes, but that juice didn’t last long as unfermented!
Did Jesus Drink?
Christians sometimes believe that Jesus made (and drank) grape juice, not fermented wine, but this runs contrary both to the text and to common sense and history (Jn. 2:1–10). When the house ruler commented that the wine Jesus made was uncharacteristically better than the wine first served, he had to mean fermented wine. We don’t comment on the quality of grape juice in that way. We can easily compare and contrast the quality of wines but not that of grape juices. And, as I said above, there was no way to serve large portions of unfermented wine at a wedding anyway.
In Matthew 11:19, Jesus contrasts his ministry with that of John the Baptist. He points out that the Pharisees attacked John for being too strict and they attacked him for being too lenient! The Pharisees claimed Jesus was a glutton and a winebibber. These charges were false (and blasphemous), but Jesus admits that, unlike John, he did enjoy good food and wine. He obviously means alcoholic wine, or the Pharisees’ comments wouldn’t have had any meaning at all.
Was There Fermented Wine at Communion?
In 1 Corinthians 11:21 Paul rebukes the church for sins at the Lord’s Table. One of them is that some members were getting drunk. Obviously they were using fermented wine during communion. It’s true that in those days, the Lord’s Supper was a part of larger meal, and not a separate event, but this underscores the fact that early Christians consumed fermented beverages. Paul didn’t rebuke them for consuming alcoholic wine, only for getting drunk and otherwise not caring for their brothers and sisters.
There are many activities we engage in today that the Bible would consider at best questionable, but alcohol isn’t one of them. Christians in the Bible (and Jesus himself) did drink alcohol in moderation, and the Bible never rebuked them for it.
Does This Mean That All Christians May Drink?
This doesn’t mean that all Christians should drink alcohol. If a Christian can’t drink alcohol in moderation, he should never drink it (1 Cor. 6:12). This is often true in the case of those who were previously drunkards. And as I said above, if drinking will truly wound a weaker Christian (that is, one who doesn’t understand that the Bible permits alcohol, and will be led to drink it and thereby sin against his conscience), then we shouldn’t drink (Rom. 14:14–23).
But this only means that drinking is wrong in some cases, not all cases.
You mention legalism. It’s true that Christians can impose standards the Bible doesn’t impose and in doing this they undermine the Bible (Mk. 7:5–9). But in specific cases they can also act with blatant disregard for their brothers and sisters by drinking (Rom. 14). This is a sin also.
We live in an alcohol- (and drug-) obsessed culture, so it’s understandable why Christians would not want to allow drinking. But we have to be guided by the Bible, not by our culture.
I hope this helps.
Posted on August 10, 2013
The gospel presupposes a worldview. The fact that this idea sounds unsettling to us shows how far we’ve come from the Bible’s teaching. A worldview is a way of viewing the world. It’s a set of assumptions that everybody has by which we interpret what goes on around us and inside us. There is a Christian worldview and a Buddhist worldview and a Hindu worldview and a secular worldview and New Age worldview and Marxist worldview and variations and combinations of each. Whatever we experience in this world, you and I interpret through the grid of our instinctive assumptions. Those assumptions comprise our worldview. Worldviews are like pancreases: everybody has one, even if we don’t know it or think about it.
The gospel assumes that we grasp certain truths, that we adopt a basic worldview. We don’t preach the gospel in an intellectual vacuum. The minute we say, “Jesus saves,” we must ask, “Who is Jesus? and “Saves us from what?” and then we must face the fact that the gospel presupposes a worldview. This is easy to prove.
Suppose you’re conversing with an unbelieving colleague whose spiritual condition you’re desperately concerned about. This is the first time you’ve ever really gotten into spiritual matters. You don’t specifically know where he or she stands. You start with, “I’m concerned with your eternal destiny. How do you stand with God?”
Let’s suppose your colleague replies, “I don’t know much about God, but sure, I’d like to be right with God.”
And you respond, “Do you know that you — like all of us — were born into sin and our sin separates from God and that we stand under God’s judgment?”
And your colleague, good postmodern that he is, says, “I like God but I don’t like that idea of God. God’s not judgmental. He accepts everybody as they are. Sure, we’ve all failed and done a few bad things, but the only ‘sins’ God cares about are racism and homophobia and multinational corporations and judgmentalism. I believe in God, but I don’t believe I’m much of a sinner and, at any rate, I don’t think he’d judge me because I’m not perfect.”
You wouldn’t say (would you?), “That’s OK. You can still trust Jesus. He’ll take you just as you are. You don’t need to admit you’re a sinner. You don’t need to acknowledge that you deserve God’s judgment. You don’t need to repent. Just trust Jesus.”
No, you’d say, “You’re a sinner. You can’t become a Christian until you admit you’ve sinned by breaking God’s law. You must see that you’re accountable to God and deserve his judgment. After all, that’s the reason Jesus had to die. If people aren’t sinners, there was no reason for the Cross.”
If you’d respond to your colleague that way, you’re admitting that the gospel presupposes a worldview. You’re saying (as you should) that certain beliefs are incompatible with the reception of the gospel. The gospel saves from sin, and if we don’t repent of sin, we can’t be saved.
This is why at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry John the Baptist laid the groundwork by preaching repentance (Mt. 3:1–2). His listeners who refused to repent of their sins would face God’s righteous judgment (vv. 7–12). Jesus continued that message of repentance as part of his gospel preaching (Mt. 4:17). This is why David Wells is correct to observe in The Courage to be Protestant that the gospel is understandable only in terms of a moral universe. The gospel doesn’t harmonize with a conceptual universe in which man is his own god, in which truth is relative, in which guilt is merely subjective, in which there is no final judgment, in which all religions lead to the same place, and in which Jesus is one great religious figure among many. The gospel is simply incompatible with these ideas. This is another way of saying that the gospel demands that sinners give up certain false ideas before they can be saved.
So, when we preach the gospel to poor, hell-bound sinners, we’re preaching a gospel that demands they repent of their rebellious thinking, not just their rebellious emotions, their rebellious morals, their rebellious will, and their rebellious instincts.
The gospel presupposes a worldview. This is why the Bible starts with Genesis 1:1 and not John 3:16.
Posted on July 26, 2013
Adapted from my upcoming book Are Christian Sexual Ethics Outmoded?
In confronting the routinization of same-sex marriage (SSM) we are witnessing the collapse of a massive “plausibility structure.” By “plausibility structure,” I mean what Peter Berger has described as a humanly constructed coercive objectivity that has gained the “power to constitute and to impose itself as a reality.” For thousands of years of human history what marriage is was taken for granted. Throughout its history it has been assaulted, injured, and diluted — but never redefined. The fact that the West in recent years is the first civilization in human history to redefine marriage verifies our apostasy. Our civilization was shaped by both Christian culture and the Greco-Roman world. Christianity has been unwaveringly opposed to homosexuality. The sophisticated paganism of Greece and Rome, unlike Christianity, was lax about homosexuality — but not about the definition of marriage: “[E]ven in cultures very favorable to homoerotic relationships (as in ancient Greece), something akin to the conjugal [“traditional”] view has prevailed — nothing like same-sex marriage was even imagined.” In creating SSM, our civilization is overthrowing an entire history of the definition of marriage. Our depravity isn’t merely substantive; it’s also structural. We’re not merely evil; we’re creating principles and institutions for the purpose of enshrining our evil. SSM is becoming a new plausibility structure.
When plausibility structures collapse, an entire way of thinking and, therefore, of acting in a culture changes. The transition between the collapse of the old and the adoption of the new creates, for a time, at least, a deep cultural unsettledness springing from conceptual conflicts to which humans are simply not accustomed. In the case of SSM, the conflict isn’t hard to demonstrate. Quick: what’s marriage? The fact that you fumbled mentally at a definition you could articulate (as opposed to merely intuitively assume) doesn’t prove that there is no workable definition for marriage or that it’s a hard concept to understand. It only proves that marriage has been a plausibility structure for so long that nobody thought about defining it. Is it a legal contract between any man and woman? No, because such contracts occur every day and nobody would call them a marriage. Is marriage a long-term sexually committed relationship between a man and woman? Nobody would call that a marriage either. What about commitment to fidelity (however defined) before witnesses secured by a state-sanctioned marriage license? This would disqualify most of what were considered marriages in human history. The reason we’re obliged to re-think these definitions (or think about them in the first place) is that nobody before recent times would have even considered that people of the same sex could marry. SSM wouldn’t have been deemed so much immoral as implausible; we would have lacked the conceptual formulations with which to conceive of such a scenario.
Another example in the last century was the (re-)definition of personhood in the Third Reich. A chief objective of the Nazi propaganda machine under the undisputed direction of Joseph Goebbels was to dehumanize (literally) the Jewish population so that the rest of society would accept their enslavement and eventual liquidation. In time, that objective worked. This transformation required a deep unsettledness, overturning as it did centuries of the Western plausibility structure of personhood defined as man created in God’s image and entitled to basic humane [!] treatment. To be biologically human was ipso facto to be entitled to spiritual personhood. The Nazis changed that formulation for the Jews, and that change, while successful, wasn’t easy. It’s unsettledness is captured in an exchange in the classic movie Schindler’s List, about German entrepreneur and war profiteer Oscar Schindler, who over time became horrified at the Nazi extermination machine and used his war-labor factories to shield Jews from it. In one scene, Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish assistant played by Ben Kingsley, quibbles with Schindler on the most effective words to use on Schindler’s list of names scheduled to be submitted to the Nazis to assure his Jewish workers would be considered worthy of not being exterminated.
In exasperation, Schindler retorts, “Must we invent a whole new language?”
“I think so, yes,” Stern responds quietly.
Collapsing plausibility structures demand replacement plausibility structures, and since all such structures presuppose concepts and language for converting those concepts, no collapse survives without conceptual and linguistic unsettledness.
Today we speak of “traditional marriage” and “same-sex marriage.” A century ago this language would have been as incomprehensible as if we today spoke of “traditional wars” versus “non-violent wars,” or “traditional widowers” versus “married widowers.” Some plausibility structures are so inflexible and deep-seated and their meaning so self-evident that defining them seems tautological. The fact that we today can speak of “traditional marriage” and “same-sex marriage” testifies to the nearly unprecedented success of the radical homosexual agenda in unseating a millennia-long marital plausibility structure that has never had a single competitor in any culture anywhere.
Whatever we may say of SSM, it transports us into uncharted territory. We have no idea what a non-heterosexual marital plausibility structure would — or even could — look like.
Posted on July 25, 2013
Theological liberalism narrowly considered is identified with a movement in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but its theological impulse — to conform the Faith to the spirit of the age — has been around since the Garden of Eden. (In this sense, the ancient Jews, when they syncretized their faith with the surrounding pagan nations, were notorious liberals.) Liberalism’s chief tenet is accommodating Christianity to the reigning spirit of the age.
In the first half of the 19th century in Europe, this reigning spirit was Romanticism, the enthronement of emotion and feelings to counter the acidic effects of Enlightenment, which judged all things by universal human reason or objective human experience. The liberalism of that time did not want to give up the gains of the Enlightenment, but it also did not want to give up Christianity, as the Enlightenment seemed to be forcing people to do if they were to judge everything by universal human (as opposed to God’s) standards. In this way, liberalism could protect Christianity from Enlightenment. The problem is that the Christianity it protected had nothing to do with the Christianity of the Bible. Christian beliefs — atonement, resurrection, Second Coming, Biblical inspiration — are simply (in the original liberal view) a reflection on the internal Christian experience, which is the essence of religion. They are not true in any objective sense. Real religion is a particular kind of feeling. Whether the redemptive facts of the Bible are true is irrelevant.
Early in the 20th century, Enlightenment in the form of naturalistic science made a huge comeback from Romanticism (without negating the gains of the latter). Only what we can verify by our senses was worthy of belief. Anyway, science was granting society great new discoveries like Einsteinian relativism, quantum physics, atomic energy, and technology like the automobile, the airplane, labor-saving homes devices, and so on. The miracles Christianity is built on had little obvious relevance to this science and technology, and they didn’t fit into its worldview. Therefore, liberalism and its spirit of accommodation shifted from a religion of feeling to one of reason. Liberals, keeping up with the times (again), questioned or abandoned God’s direct creation of the world, Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection, his Second Coming, and so on, so Christianity could be culturally acceptable. It was this denial within the major Protestant denominations that spurred the reaction known as fundamentalism, which affirmed those very “fundamentals” that the liberals were denying. To be liberal was to deny the fundamentals of the Faith.
Today we live in different times still. This shift can be detected in the observation that while early 20th century liberal theological views were changing, their ethical views were not. There was almost no dispute between liberals and fundamentalists at that time on what we today term ethics, particularly sexual ethics. In short, the liberals weren’t parading for illicit sex or elective abortion or legalized porn any more than the fundamentalists were. This history of ethical unity and theological disunity is what caught many Bible-believing Christians off guard after the 1960′s Sexual Revolution infested the churches — including their own churches. Fundamentalism hadn’t especially prepared them to address professed Christians who weren’t interested in denying the “fundamentals of the Faith,” only the fundamentals of Biblical ethics, especially sexual ethics. If theological orthodoxy is limited to affirmation of the fundamentals, then liberalism has no necessary bearing on ethics. Bible-believing Christians were soon forced to come to terms with what theological liberalism must look like in a sexual chaotic culture.
It is now painfully clear, in fact, that the reigning spirit of our time is not naturalistic science, but libertarian sexual ethics. Just as 19th century romantic liberalism morphed into 20th century rationalist liberalism, so the latter has morphed into 21st century (un)ethical liberalism. Unlike orthodoxy, liberalism is unstable by its very nature, and its creed today is ethical (especially sexual) autonomy. David Mills writes:
Unlike the modernists of old, our liberals are quite happy to let us believe in the Virgin Birth or the Bodily Resurrection, or for that matter praying in tongues, presumably on the assumption that it keeps us occupied and out of their way. They only object when we dare to argue for moral limitations and ideals they have long ago abandoned. They will tolerate the most extravagant supernaturalism, as long as it is not assumed that the supernatural makes binding statements about human sexual behavior.
Not that today’s liberals have recovered the great Biblical redemptive truths. It’s just that they’re not relevant anymore as orthodoxies to be rebelling against. Liberalism is all about rebellion against God, and its rebellion can’t be limited to theology. God’s latest great bastion that still exercised a degree of cultural hegemony in the 1960’s was not theology but sexual ethics: “Aha, we’ve identified the latest, greatest oppressor to overthrow.” The cultural milieu that today’s liberalism must, therefore, accommodate is the Sexual Revolution.
This also means that we don’t rightly identify liberals today by simply checking who won’t affirm creedal orthodoxy — for the simple reason that creedal heterodoxy isn’t the spirit of the age. The actual liberals are the Christians who are willing to throw overboard Christian sexual ethics — people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis. By their adherence to the guiding spirit of liberalism — accommodation to the spirit of the age — they are no less liberal than were Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf von Harnack, and Rudolf Bultmann — and no less dangerous.
Welcome to liberalism 3.0
Posted on July 12, 2013
The U. S. Supreme Court has paved the way for wholesale cultural routinization of same-sex “marriage.” By “routinization” I mean the blithe acceptance of homosexuality as no more odd than relatively rare human phenomena like red-headedness or left-handedness. We wouldn’t say redheaded or left-handed people shouldn’t marry, would we? This is routinization. It has been a pressing goal of the radical homosexual agenda for a long time. That agenda is winning.
Its next agenda item, cultural hegemony, is to marginalize and oppress anyone who either vocally opposes or, in time, refuses to support homosexuality. When sexual liberty collides with religious liberty in our present climate, religious liberty will always lose, as Benjamin Domenech writes. This is because for decades, and particularly since the Sixties, our nation has marginalized religion (read: orthodox Christianity) and mainstreamed sex (read: illicit intercourse). In this climate, Christianity is vague and ethereal and, at best, a very private matter. Sex, on the other hand, is immediate, visible and pervasive. The need to protect religious liberty seems trifling; the need to protect sexual liberty, on the other hand, is (dare I say it?) orgasmic. This is how religious liberty will erode — is eroding — in the West unless the sexualization program is arrested by godly revival and reformation.
Revival and reformation are more urgently needed now than at any time since possibly the Protestant Reformation. At that time a Christian culture had gone theologically astray. Today a de-Christianized culture has gone ethically astray. Absent reformation, judgment awaits. Or, rather ….
But when we keep on running, keep on sinning, and make it all the way to the doors of the den of iniquity, and in, and past the scary-looking bouncers, and all the way to the bar, and to the back room brothel, and then out again unscathed, we think we’re getting away with it. We’ve avoided judgment. Ha! So there! That wasn’t so harmful now, was it?
But we are deceived, Mattson notes. According to Romans 1, God’s judgment on apostasy (notably idolatry and homosexuality) is often calm continuity, not cataclysmic discontinuity: he lets apostates keep sinning. He allows man to habituate his depravity. This means that wholesale approval of homosexuality (see Rom. 1:32) is itself God’s judgment. The decisions of the Supremes are God’s judgment.
Hellfire comes later.
Posted on July 6, 2013
Commencement address delivered Friday, June 14, 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Pharr, Texas, Edinburg Theological Seminary
I congratulate you graduates on your accomplishment. Seminary isn’t easy, but nothing in life worth having is easy. What you have learned at ETS will shape your entire life and ministry.
I am grateful to President Vallencia and to Dr. Roberts and others of the administration for their gracious invitation. I am proud to be identified with ETS.
I feel especially privileged to be addressing you at Dr. Roberts’ valedictory. It is a bittersweet occasion. Humanly speaking, there would be no ETS apart from Dr. Roberts. His godliness, his theology, his vision, his vigor, his intellect, his perseverance, his grace, his patience, and his kindness — all these virtues have shaped ETS. We colleagues and you graduates can most exhibit gratitude to Dr. Roberts by collectively perpetuating his virtues.
I want to talk specifically about the theological and philosophical virtue of ETS this evening. This is a proudly Reformed seminary. But it is more. It is a self-consciously Reformed seminary with special affinity for the neo-Reformational Dutch theological and philosophical tradition. By this, I mean the heritage in the Netherlands of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyeweerd. I denote its counterpart in North America with theologians like Cornelius Van Til, Henry Meeter, and Even Runner. This theological tradition is unique. The Reformed tradition has numerous streams (Swiss, German, French, English, Scottish). Each makes its own contribution to the richness of our heritage. I am convinced, however, that the Dutch neo-Reformational tradition is the highest form of that tradition to date. Van Til once said, “Calvinism is ‘Christianity come to its own.’“ I’d like to say that the neo-Reformational tradition is Calvinism come to its own. The form of Calvinism espoused by ETS is the highest form of Calvinism there is.
I maintain a special interest in Christian culture, and perhaps the most unique feature of the neo-Reformational tradition is its view of culture. Tonight, I’d like to highlight three unique aspects of our tradition that pertain to culture. I’d like to point out how they propel us to cultural engagement in our days of great cultural apostasy.
First, the neo-Reformational tradition champions the Antithesis. To understand the Antithesis, we must know what a worldview is. North American evangelicals have now found “Christian worldview” fashionable. Long before this, Abraham Kuyper understood that Christianity is an entire way of thinking and acting. The reason that earlier Calvinists didn’t talk as much is this way is that they didn’t need to. They were living in a Christian culture. The very air they breathed was suffused with a Christian perspective. To think in any other way simply wasn’t an option — or even a viable possibility. But the European Enlightenment shattered that unity. It put biblical Christianity on the defensive. It offered the world a new and powerful alternative to Christian culture. That alternative was life based on human reason and experience and no longer on the Bible and great creeds. Man would no longer bow to God’s special revelation. The Enlightenment crushed Christian culture. In time, this way of thinking got rid of God altogether — the West became secular.
Kuyper understood what was at stake. He was one of the first to argue that Christians cannot simply assume that we can share with unbelievers a basic way of thinking, and only afterward find our way to Christianity. No, Kuyper argued, we must begin with Christian convictions (presuppositions), and only if we begin with them will we end with the right kind of Christianity. Kuyper taught that when God saves us, he gives us a “regenerated consciousness” — a new way of thinking and living, not just a new home in heaven. This is a Christian worldview. There is, therefore, an antithesis between the Christian worldview and all non-Christian worldviews. Our Faith presupposes a distinctive way of thinking: this is antithetical to all non-Christian views.
Our “regenerated consciousness” shapes every aspect of thought and life. It means that we must approach science and technology and history and math and music and literature and politics and culture in a distinctively Christian way. We must think and act as Christians everywhere, not just in church or the family. We do not share with unbelievers our basic presuppositions about thought and life. There are no neutral zones of thinking. A Christian will look at science and politics (for example) different from an unbeliever. In the modern world, most unbelievers look at science from a naturalistic, Darwinian perspective: there is no God, or at least no active God, and we must investigate the universe without accounting for him. Obviously, at many main points, unbelieving scientists will arrive at different conclusions from neo-Reformational Christians. They will likely say that humanity evolved from lower forms of life amid a long process of chaos and chance. We arrive at different conclusions from them because we start with different presuppositions.
Likewise, unbelieving views of politics will be radically different from consistently Christian views. We believe that politics must be founded in God’s moral law in the Bible. Unbelievers deny this law, so they find their source of law in experience or tradition or the majority of the populace or elites or the “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Obviously a political system based on this presupposition is very different from one based on the Bible. In the West today, this unbelieving presupposition almost everywhere necessities an expanded role for the state, or politics. When we deny the power of God, we must enlist the power of an ever-growing state to enforce our views of the ideal society. And so on. Our politics isn’t like their politics, because we start with different presuppositions. Thinking “Christianly” means thinking as a Christian about everything — and this in turn means thinking differently from unbelievers.
Of course, unbelievers don’t always think in a distinctively unbelieving way, just as believers don’t always think in a distinctively believing way. We are all inconsistent. This is a good thing, in the case of unbelievers. God restrains unbelievers from being entirely consistent in their thinking — this is called “common grace,” another vital contribution of the neo-Reformational tradition. This means that at critical points, Christians can work together with unbelievers precisely because unbelievers are inconsistently unbelieving. But to the degree that unbelievers become consistent with their presuppositions, their thought and actions go radically contrary to Christianity, and they wreak havoc on a culture. This is where we get abortion, same-sex marriage, socialized medicine, female egg harvesting, pornography, and the drug culture. Unbelieving worldviews lead to unbelieving cultures — and unbelieving cultures are not pleasant places to live in. A Christian worldview tends to produce a Christian culture. But should we even work for a Christian culture? This brings us to the second unique aspect of the Neo-Reformational tradition.
The Cultural Mandate
The neo-Reformational tradition sees man’s earthly calling as the cultural mandate. In Genesis 1 we read that God created man and woman in order to steward the rest of God’s creation for his glory. Man was to be God’s vicegerent — his holy deputy — cultivating creation for God’s glory. Creation wasn’t to be left as it is. Creation from the hand of God was very good, but God wanted more. He wanted man, his crowning creation, to bring it to even greater levels for his glory. This work assumes the differences between creation (or nature) and culture. Nature is what God makes; culture is what we make. An apple is nature; an apple pie is culture. The musical note “C” is nature; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is culture. God calls us to interact creatively with nature according to his standards in the Bible to bring glory to him in all of creation. God desires to see man use his full potential to bring creation to the highest possible man-cultivated levels. Man’s highest potential is achieved when he submits to God and cultivates creation in God’s prescribed way in the Bible.
The language used in Genesis 1 is “dominion.” Man is called to rule the earth for God’s glory. This is the opposite of what modern environmentalism teaches. Environmentalists often say that nature should be protected from man. God says that man should cultivate nature for his glory. Environmentalists look at how man sometimes harms nature and says, “Man must not exercise dominion.” God says, “The solution to warped dominion by man is not to quit taking dominion; it is to take dominion in the right way.”
Warped dominion is a fact of life, and it brings up a critical truth. When man sinned in the Garden, he didn’t lose his impulse (or his calling) for dominion: he simply distorted it. Just as unbelievers espouse an unbelieving worldview, so unbelievers practice an unbelieving dominion. This fact accounts for the greatest conflicts in human history — two kinds of people with two kinds of consciousnesses and two worldviews both competing for dominion in the same world. It’s easy to offer examples of how this conflict is played out. Self-consciously Christian musicians like Bach and Handel write music that glorifies God. Anti-Christian musicians like Wagner and Lady Gaga write music that glorifies man — and eventually debases him. Professional Christian athletes like Orel Herschiser give God the glory for the great feats they accomplish. Muhammad Ali brags about his own talents and glorifies himself. Heinrich Hofmann painted to depict the glories of Jesus Christ. Picasso’s pornographic modernism exhibited a man-centered crudeness that shows what creativity in rebellion against God looks like. All of them are dominionists: some are God-honoring dominionists and some are God-defying dominionists. This conflict is the great earthly conflict of the ages.
Kuyper understood that we haven’t properly glorified God until we have glorified him in subduing all of creation to his glory.
For the last few generations, however, Christians in the West have been in hasty retreat from the cultural mandate. They have retreated to the interior — thinking that the only important thing is their internal and vertical relationship with God. They have reduced Christianity to a “personal worship hobby.” They have come to believe that when we exercise dominion, we’re diverting ourselves from the really important tasks like Bible study and church and personal evangelism and prayer and holiness. But the Bible makes no such distinctions. In the Garden of Eden, God communed with man (vertical), but God also had commanded man to take dominion over creation (horizontal). Jesus told his apostles that the greatest command is to love God with all their being, but he also instructed them to disciple all nations in all things he had commanded. We are called to both internal and external tasks in glorifying God. God wants everything of us — not just some of us. But too often Christians have limited their obligations only to the internal or non-cultural tasks.
Or they have revived (although unintentionally) ancient heresies that devalued creation. They have considered the material world to be evil. They have seen salvation as salvation from the world, not from sin. They have not understood that matter isn’t the problem; sin is the problem. They have looked at the evils of Hollywood and abandoned movie making. They have considered the depravity of Washington, D.C. and retreated from politics. They have observed the perversity of Darwinism and given up on science. These are precisely the wrong tactics. We don’t need irresponsible abandonment but active engagement — we need distinctively Christian movie making, politics, and science.
Or else Christians have given up the life of the mind. They have observed how secular universities (and seminaries!) have destroyed people’s faith, and they’ve tuned their back on reason and learning and the intellect. They have abandoned higher education, and then they wonder why higher education is so anti-Christian. Kuyper knew better. Because the intellect is crucial in the cultural mandate, neo-Reformational Christianity has always stressed the cultivation of the mind. Kuyper launched the Free University of Amsterdam, not simply to get more Christians educated, but to get them educated to think and act in distinctively Christian ways. He knew that the correct solution to the rationalism of the Enlightenment wasn’t to give up the intellect and embrace an emotional anti-intellectualism. The solution to godless intellect is a godly intellect. In the language of Herman Bavinck, “[T]he internal principle [of theology] is not in faith as such but in believing reflection.” We employ our God-given reason to “think God’s thoughts after him,” and when we give up on reason and reflection, we give up on one of God’s most glorious gifts to man without which he simply cannot exercise dominion in the earth.
Finally, Christians have embraced defeatist eschatology — they have come to believe that God has predestined the world to get worse and worse, so the cultural mandate is abandoned to defeat. Sometimes this twist becomes perverse. I once had an evangelical pastor tell me that the rising abortion and pornography and homosexuality in our culture may seem like bad news but really they are good news, since they mean Jesus is coming soon. If that idea sounds perverted, that’s because it is. Flourishing sin is never good news; and whatever your eschatology is, you may never use it as an excuse to quit the cultural mandate.
Neo-Reformational Christians know that the cultural mandate is their marching order. They do not limit their work to family and church and personal devotion. They work, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to subdue all of creation to God’s glory.
Finally, neo-Reformational Christians espouse sphere sovereignty. This is Kuyper’s language. He means that God established separate but interrelated spheres of human life by which he mediates his authority in human culture. There are many spheres; each operates according to God’s law unique to its sphere. The institutional examples of those spheres include family, church, and state. Each has its distinct calling, and each is comparatively independent under God’s authority. These spheres may not arrogate to themselves the unique tasks of the others. For example, the family is called to propagate the human race and cultivate children and provide for its members. The church is called to declare the Word and administer the ordinances or sacraments and protect Christian orthodoxy. The state is called (in the language of the Declaration of Independence) to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These spheres (and others) all have separate but critical tasks. The problem arises when a single sphere lords it over all others, and when one arrogates to itself tasks that belong to the others.
A prime example today is over-politicization, or statism. The state has commandeered the tasks of health, welfare, medicine, education and others that God designed mostly for the family. The state has become a monstrosity. It has developed messianic aspirations. Whenever a crisis or calamity erupts, people clamor, “What will the government do about it?” They almost never say, “What will families and church do about it?” This response, by the way, shows that we must be careful not to lay all the blame on politicians. The fact is that most moderns are irresponsible, and they prefer a large and burdensome state, and they will surrender their political liberty, if it means they don’t have to be responsible for health care, elderly care, education, and guns. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
But the church can fail also. Many Christians are church-centered rather than kingdom-centered. The kingdom of God is his reign in the earth. It encompasses all spheres. Of course, the church is indispensable in God’s plan. But the church is not identical to the kingdom; it’s a part of that kingdom. Some Christians seem to believe that God is concerned only about the state of his church. This is wrong. As anyone reading the Old Testament prophets knows, God is intimately concerned with society as a whole — the culture. We cannot obsess about the church and forget about the family and state and music and science and education and so on.
Still other Christians are family-centered. This trend is understandable in our world. The family is under severe assault by pornography, feminism, machismo, statism, abortion, free sex, homosexuality, egg harvesting, androgyny, and much more. But the solution to this assault isn’t to make the family the be-all and end-all. The family needs the church to protect it against the depredations of the culture. The church is a great holy haven for the family. If you pit the family against the church, you are cutting off the very lifeblood by which God preserves the family.
No single sphere can lord it over the others. God does not (for example) use his church to mediate all of his blessings to the other spheres: that was the medieval view, and it was wrong. God certainly does not elevate the state to such a status that it commandeers all of life. We sometimes use the term “government” today to denote the state. But in the Bible, the idea of government is diverse: each sphere has its own government — family government, church government, school government, and, perhaps most important of all, self-government under God’s authority. One government among many, and perhaps the least important of all, is state (or political) government. If people could govern themselves under God’s Word, there would be much less demand for the state. Politics is so large today because men’s personal responsibility is so small. When the godly men and woman and the family and church and the state recover their biblical obligations, the state will soon shrink to its biblical limits.
A genius of neo-Reformational Christianity is its commitment to the application of the Faith in all of life, de-consolidated in different spheres. Neo-Reformational Christianity isn’t just concerned with the afterlife; it’s also concerned with this world.
At ETS, you’ve been brought face to face with the highest form of Christianity: the antithesis, the cultural mandate, and sphere sovereignty. That Christianity is not content with fostering families and building churches. It moves outward in God’s world to claim all of creation for his glory.
Our goal is take godly dominion in our culture according to God’s Word.
This is our heritage. This is our calling. This is our destiny.
Posted on June 29, 2013
“Consider the cost of taking this radically scriptural Christianity seriously. Ask yourself which side you must join in the tense spiritual battle of our times. Compromise is not an option. A middle-of-the-road stance is not possible. Either the ground motive of the christian religion works radically in our lives or we serve other gods. If the antithesis is too radical for you, ask yourself whether a less radical Christianity is not like salt that has lost its savour. I state the antithesis as radically as I do so that we may again experience the full double-edged sharpness and power of God’s Word. You must experience the antithesis as a spiritual storm that strikes lightning into your life and that clears the sultry air. If you do not experience it as a spiritual power requiring the surrender of your whole heart, then it will bear no fruit in your life. Then you will stand apart from the great battle the antithesis always instigates. You yourself cannot wage this battle. Rather, the spiritual dynamic of the Word of God wages the struggle in us and pulls us along despite our ‘flesh and blood.’”
Posted on June 28, 2013
We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin.
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don’t hurt anyone,
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
We believe in sex before during
and after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy’s OK
We believe that taboos are taboo.
We believe that everything’s getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated.
You can prove anything with evidence.
We believe there’s something in horoscopes,
UFO’s and bent spoons;
Jesus was a good man just like Buddha
Mohammed and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher although we think
his good morals were bad.
We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.
We believe that after death comes The Nothing
because when you ask the dead what happens
they say Nothing.
If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
then it’s compulsory heaven for all
excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan.
We believe in Masters and Johnson.
What’s selected is average.
What’s average is normal.
What’s normal is good.
We believe in total disarmament.
We believe there are direct links between
warfare and bloodshed.
Americans should beat their guns into tractors
and the Russians would be sure to follow.
We believe that man is essentially good.
It’s only his behaviour that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.
We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds.