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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Engaging the What? (IV)

The Modern Church’s Infatuation with Culture

In his Stone Lectureship series at Princeton, Herman Bavinck declared, “If we are to speak of the relation which Christianity bears to culture, we must first of all give a clear account of what we understand by culture, and of precisely the kind of culture Christianity is to form a contrast to.”[1] And therein exists the problem of a lion’s share of modern ecclesiastical discourse. Discussions are neither clear nor precise, but tend to flit about the accoutrements or forms, without discussing, debating, or disagreeing or agreeing with its contents.

Back in 1959, Henry Van Til commented that “Culture is not something neutral, without ethical or religious connotation. Human achievement is not purposeless but seeks to achieve certain ends, which are either good or bad. Since man is a moral being, his culture cannot be a-moral.”[2] Van Til began his book with the observation that “The Christian is in the world, but not of the world. This constitutes the basis of the perennial problem involved in the discussion of Christian culture.”[3]

One of our problems in the 21st century is that few are stepping forward with a clear and precise definition of what this animal is that many are suggesting Christians “engage.” Bavinck supplies us with a simple, starting working definition to get us moving on the right track. “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.”[4] His historical investigation lead him to explain that the word “culture” was a product of the eighteenth century and arose concomitantly with the related terms “civilization,” “enlightenment,” “development,” and “education.” Each of these terms lent themselves to an understanding of “general cultivation, improvement, and [they] always presuppose an object which must be improved.”[5]

What is that object that must be improved? What is its name? In our time, Mother Earth might be appropriate. In Bavinck’s day, from a secular standpoint, it was usually called “nature,” but in the Christian scheme of things it is called “creation.” It ought to be clear that all three of these names conjure up very different meanings of life and a totally different life and worldview. Contrary to so many of our modern ecclesiastical leaders who desire to make “church” comfortable for the pagan, Bavinck’s desire was to engage the non-believer and to present what has come to be called the Neo-Calvinistic worldview. Both Bavinck and Kuyper were champions of all of life being formed and informed by Scripture. In that regard, both were active in politics, education, and a host of other related areas. Their occasional writings and speeches manifest a remarkably broad “Renaissance” approach to life. At the same time, however, they never considered jettisoning their distinctive Reformed way of life to achieve their goals in culture.

That is due, in part, to the fact that Bavinck analyzed “nature” from a twofold perspective. First, “it includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man,” but, second, it also includes “in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also.”[6] What Bavinck means with this distinction is that “The faculties and powers which man possesses have not been acquired by him, but are given to him by God; they are a gift of nature, and these gifts are a means for cultivating the external world, as well as an object which must be cultivated.”

Culture, its norms, measures, and standards are not derived autonomously, but are given by God. It’s one thing for the non-Christian to be ignorant of this truth because of the blindness of unbelief, but it is quite another thing for Christians to be confused about it. For all who are “cultural warriors,” there is a standard, which is God’s standard and every individual is required to operate by God’s standard and they are held responsible for not living in accordance with that standard. They are, in a word, without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Lamech, Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain might have done something to advance “culture” as they understood it, but they misunderstood it in their desire to live autonomous lives and not to glorify God in it. The good folks in the land of Shinar suffered under the same delusion.

In 1941, Pitirim Sorokin wrote a thorough analysis of culture entitled, The Crisis of Our Age.[7] His sentiments were echoed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he said, “Men have forgotten God.” Today, we seem to have forgotten that men have forgotten God. If the progressive secularists/humanists have long since forgotten God, modern evangelicals have long since forgotten the importance of biblical truth (read: doctrine) for modern Christians. There is little wonder, therefore, that many who call themselves evangelicals have either moved away from the faith altogether, or “will become full-blown liberals.”[8] One of Wells’ theses is that essential doctrinal differences do not seem to matter much anymore today.

Doctrine has been supplanted by issues that are more tangible—at least ostensibly—such as eradicating global poverty and global warming. Bible studies that earlier presented scriptural truths have been put on the back burner for “Christian” yoga classes and other trendy fads. Movie discussions are a lot more interesting and less threatening than, say, Paul’s discussion of truth in Ephesians 1:3-14, for example. Wells summarizes the current situation/dilemma in this way: “When all is said and done today, many evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine—certainly they are when they ‘do church.’ Privately, no doubt, there are doctrines that are believed. But in church…well, that is different because, many think, doctrine is an impediment as we reach out to new generations.”[9]

This attitude towards doctrine is bad enough, but, sadly, it is not the end of the story. Wells proceeds to explain that “In the last two or three decades evangelicals have discovered culture.”[10] Now, many today might think that this is a good thing. The spate of books on the subject that ostensibly give us the impression that the cultural puzzle will be resolved for us are, as often as not, very superficial treatments of a very complex subject. American evangelicals like this very much, however. Just give them a glib 3, 5, or 7 steps to understanding culture and they are more than satisfied. Someone needs to write a culture Cliff’s Notes or Culture for Dummies. That way very little is asked or required of us. When Wells writes that evangelicals “discovered culture,” he reminds us that his words sound “more flattering than I intend…. A serious engagement with culture, though, is not what most evangelicals are about.”[11]

If Wells is correct, what might evangelicals be doing when they say they are “engaging the culture”? Here is Wells’ assessment: “They want to know what the trends and fashions are that are ruffling the surface of contemporary life. They have no interest at all in what lies beneath the trends, none on how our modernized culture in the West shapes personal horizons, produces appetites, and provides us ways of processing the meaning of life…. Pragmatists to the last drop of blood, these evangelicals are now in the cultural waters, not to understand what is there, but to get some movement.”[12] On an even more negative note, Wells states, “to be quite honest, the question is raised by only a few on the sidelines, and in many evangelical churches the question barely even makes sense.”[13] Indeed.

Wells has placed his finger on the pulse of a great deal of modern ecclesiology. It is trendy, pragmatic, and only interesting to a select few, yet you’d think that it is the hot ticket item in every church; the issue upon which the Church stands or falls. Will the modern Church, will modern PCA churches build on the basis of sola Scriptura or sola cultura?[14] This is a question that every church leader and every congregation should face squarely and review periodically. For that kind of spiritual self-examination involves the following questions: “What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity?”[15]

In other words, will modern Christians increasingly abandon the notion of Christos Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All) and opt for what Sorokin called the sensate mentality; the mentality that is almost solely interested in things material in nature, the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous, and the self-indulgent? Lord willing, we’ll go further in our next issue.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 249. Emphasis added.

[2] Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), p. 27.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Bavinck, TPR, 249.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, (NY: Doubleday, 1941). The work went to a second edition in 1956.

[8] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 2.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.



Blogger Susan said...

I found your blog by doing a google search "NT Wright emergent church". I've found your posts to be very helpful in wading through all that's going on today.

I can't find your email address on your blog and would like to ask you a couple questions.

Thank you.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

was google on crack tonight?

9:30 PM  
Blogger Solameanie said...


Put a cork in it.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Blank Slate said...

Randy: You have to admit that most everything that Ron writes is backed up in the Bible as oppossed to feelings...

Ron: Another great "makes you think" article...

Blessings all,


8:44 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Your comments were quite insulting (read: unloving) to Susan. She lives in a free country and is free to Google what she wants, just as you are.

The theology of Tom Wright at the point of justification by faith is Roman Catholic. To the extent that emergents have any theology at all, they are very dependent on bad theologians such as Karl Barth (universalist), Juergen Moltmann (universalist), John Franke (very confused and a Barthian), & N.T. Wright, who is a "fad" theologian.

Now, apologize publicly to Susan or you are gone forever from this blog site. Whatever you choose, get and read some solid theology books (start with Bavinck's "Reformed Dogmatics") and grow up.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

I felt constrained to delete my last comment lest I be called uncharitable. I am also trying to learn not to feed the trolls.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kerr said...

I'm not wading into the on-going argument between the regulars here and Randy.

I do think, however, that what Randy meant was that it seems odd that this blog would be in the top results in a Google search for "NT Wright emergent church." I don't think he was questioning the validity of the search, but rather that search yielding a link to this blog.

That's what I thought he meant. I could be wrong.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kerr said...

I don't think I phrased things clearly enough. Here's what I meant:

"I don't think Randy was questioning the validity of the search. Rather, he thought it was odd that this search led Susan to this blog. It struck me that his strange comment was poking fun at Google, not Susan."

7:17 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Either way, I'm totally convinced God brought me here.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Brooks said...

If you have paid attention to everything Ron has written about Emergents over the last year, you would understand why Google would pull up his blog when Emergent was in the search.

I am currently preaching a topical series on love as I prepare to start preaching through John. I have three goals for this series one being to teach our people how to "Walk in Love" ie Ephesians 5:1-2. From I Corinthians 13 we learn that love is patient, it is not provoked, nor does it take into account a wrong suffered.

Ron has been a good example of walking in love with his dealings with Randy and his constant insults and badgering. Most blogs would have banned him long ago.


8:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Brooks said...

In fact the only time I have seen Ron threaten to ban Randy was this time when he insulted someone else.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kerr said...

"If you have paid attention to everything Ron has written about Emergents over the last year, you would understand why Google would pull up his blog when Emergent was in the search."

Thank you for your help, Morris. Yes, I suppose it was more the NT Wright query that threw me. Perhaps Pr. Gleason has written some things on him in the past I'm not aware of. I've only been a reader for a few months.

And yes, Randy has been a less-than-constructive presence here (to put it mildly) and if his comment is what Pr. Gleason believes it to be - insulting a woman with an honest question - then it certainly warrants a ban.

In Christ,

6:48 AM  
Blogger sister said...

Did anybody try googling "NT Wright emergent church" before formulating an opinion on this one? Just curious.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

I did a second and third time and it never appeared again.

I firmly believe I was led here by God.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Since I have edited a book on the emergent (non)-church & have read Wright's material, why would I want to Google it?

7:51 PM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--In other words, will modern Christians increasingly abandon the notion of Christos Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All) and opt for what Sorokin called the sensate mentality; the mentality that is almost solely interested in things material in nature, the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous, and the self-indulgent?--

Perhaps things like this comment can help answer that question.

Ironically, though, when many modern Christians use the word sovereign (another form of "kingship" or "lordship"), they make matters worse, much worse, because for them, sovereignty means absolute control, and control is a very tricky word. Again, if you're living in danger and chaos, to say, "A good king will soon be in control," would be good news.

But it's not good news at all if you live, as we do, at the end of modernity, a period that told us in a hundred different ways how we're already controlled: by our genes (genetic determinism), by class struggle (Marxism), by primitive psychological aggressions (Freudianism), be operant conditioning (Skinnerism), by evolutionary competition (social Darwinism), by laws of physics and chemistry (naturalism, reductionism), by linguistic and social constructions (some forms of extreme postmodernism), by Euro-American military and economy (colonialism), by technique and machinery (industrialism), and by advertising (consumerism).
McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 89

Considering also how Pagitt plays the dualism card whenever the subjects of Heaven and Hell come up, Warren's Peace Plan or whatever he calls it, maybe they show how so much of today's thought is concerned only about the here-and-now, even questioning the existence of any hereafter.

9:28 PM  
Blogger sister said...

Why? For curiosity's sake? For insight? For fun? For context?

It is odd that the specified search terms brought Susan to this blog, but I don't doubt the veracity of her claim for a second... I stumbled into it in a very similar manner. What she described happens all the time. Google works in mysterious ways.

However, it does add some frivolity to Randy's silly question, when you take the second or two to add some perspective.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

"Discussions are neither clear nor precise, but tend to flit about the accoutrements or forms, without discussing, debating, or disagreeing or agreeing with its contents."

This quote from Dr. Gleason's post I find extremely humorous in light of this thread of comments.

jazzact13 - almost like a reverse gnosticism?

Sister - I did the google query because I wanted to know if there were any parallels between N.T. Wright and the emergent church. I found out that there are.

4:52 PM  
Blogger sister said...


My last post was written to respond to rattlesnake's question, "why would I...", and was not meant to put you on the spot or make you explain your actions in any way.

I you misunderstood me, I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable and for not being more clear.

Nice to meet ya.

6:17 PM  
Blogger sister said...

Sorry, that's s'posed to say, "If you misunderstood me..."

6:19 PM  

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