Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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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.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Ron's New Book

My new book is now available and can be ordered on line at As the title states, it deals with the question of capital punishment from a biblical perspective.


Engaging the What? (VII)

The Abstract Name with No Unity

In the last installment, a couple of weeks ago, we took a look peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture.”[1] By way of brief review, Bavinck designated this definition of culture in this way: “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.”[2] This “nature,” in turn, has a twofold aspect: “[I]t includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man, but also, in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also. 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.”[3]

We might find ourselves in disagreement with some of Bavinck’s particulars, but this explanation far exceeds anything offered by the PCA’s byFaith (why do they spell it this way?) magazine and at least gives us a working definition of what “engaging the culture” entails. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that Bavinck was intimately involved in the rise of Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands in his time and spent a great deal of time as a churchman, theologian, and political statesman analyzing the phenomenon of culture and giving a biblical response to it. This constitutes a great advantage for us as we read him because we are dealing with a biblical scholar of almost unsurpassed quality. He not only theorized about the application of what Scripture says in the culture, but he was actively involved in a great deal of “hands on” work.

So what are we dealing with, according to Bavinck, when we discuss the culture and how to engage it? It’s his contention that “modern culture is an abstract name for many phenomena, and forms no unity at all. Not only are there innumerable factors which have contributed to its development, but it is also in the highest degree divided in itself.”[4] He goes on to say, “everywhere, and in all domains, in politics, social economy, art, science, morals, instruction, education, there are parties, tendencies, and schools which stand in opposition to one another; the realms of justice and culture, church and state, faith and science, capital and labor, nomism and antinomism, combat each other, and proceed on different principles.”[5]

Politics, for example, mans that when Christians “engage” culture, they ought to have a particular biblical platform in mind. When I say this, I’m not attempting to dictate that Christians vote Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Green. It does mean, however, that the platform of the party must coincide with biblical principles. Therefore, it should not be acceptable to any Christian if his or her political party contains an acceptance of abortion on demand or embraces the homosexual lifestyle as a viable alternative to the traditional family. This is just as much a part of engaging culture as an art exhibit or a jazz quartet

This being the case, we must be very guarded and circumspect when we admonish others to engage “the” culture. In a very real sense, “the” culture does not exist. We ought not to give the impression that we are talking about a monolithic entity that is easily understood and dealt with. In point of fact, just the opposite is the case. Culture is in flux and consists “of an extensive group of various phenomena” that remains unfinished.[6] When we, therefore, encourage others to “engage the culture” we need to be fully cognizant that “nobody can say whither modern culture will lead us; one can surmise, guess, speculate, but there is no certainty at all.”[7] This appears to be a more realistic approach rather than rushing headlong into some type of cultural engagement where the Christian is ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the task and gets mauled by culture or, worse, absorbed by it.

In other words, once we start walking down this path, we have no certitude where we will end up. This ought to pose a real complication for pastors who continue to urge their respective congregations to engage culture. Surely, at the very least a candid warning should be issued. Our time is rife with lack of biblical knowledge. It would seem more prudent to provide a solid biblical foundation for life, to help others develop a biblical life and worldview regarding God, man, society, knowledge, truth, and ethics, and to give some clear-cut guidelines what we mean when we encourage others to engage culture. I’ve heard the phrase, “engage [the] culture,” but not the explanation, and the latter is desperately needed. When Bavinck asks the question: “Who is blind to the defects which attach to our modern culture or to the dangers to which it exposes us?”[8] he expects a sentient answer. Unfortunately, those today who could provide a satisfactory reason or satisfactory reasons to Bavinck’s questions would be few and far between, which makes the wholesale encouragement to “engage the culture” so dangerous to the 21st century Christian.

For far too many today are indeed blind to cultures defects. Discernment among many modern Christians is in the toilet as is their knowledge of the contents of Scripture, their prayer life, and their use of the means of grace. How many Christians today watch material that is spiritually unhealthy on TV, at the movies, or on HBO that is quasi-pornographic, if not downright pornographic? Culture is not neutral. It is not some entity that is in equilibrium neither favoring nor demeaning Christianity. Culture is sinful and having atheist painters and composers at the opening of your PCA church plant does not make you the sharpest knife in the drawer or the wisest church planter or pastor. Bavinck notes that “There are phenomena upon which a very different estimate is placed by many of our contemporaries from that placed upon them by the gospel of Christ.”[9]

The question that demands an answer, therefore, is: How many modern Christians are able to make that distinction? In 1994, David Wells published a book entitled God in the Wasteland.[10] He reminded us that “Until modernity was ushered into our world, cultures were always local. They were, by definition, sets of meanings and morals, beliefs and habits that arose in specific contexts of history and religion, a people’s social organization and place in the world.”[11] Now, he argues, culture “must be able to be present everywhere while denying ownership to anyone in particular. It can be exclusive to no one…And its thinness reduces life to clichés—the same clichés everywhere, served up with the same fast food, the same music, the same blue jeans and T-shirts, the same movies, the same consumer impulses, the same news. It is a generic culture, this culture of the television age, of asphalt, advertising, uniformity, and waste. And those who feed on it, those who live by it, become generic people who also are thin, who stretch far and wide and belong nowhere in particular. They are, in the deepest sense, the ‘homeless’ of our modern world.”[12] In his 1998 book, Losing our Virtue, Wells warned of dangerous evangelical “dalliances with culture.”[13] Those encounters or dalliances became increasingly treacherous as churches became more and more enamored of “the community church” idea. There was a common thread or element that made modern churches particularly susceptible to the deleterious aspects of culture that was concentrated in the fact that modern churches were, in general, “all operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology.”[14]

Far too many modern Christians are bereft of biblical knowledge, insight, maturity, discretion, and discernment. Having been fed a steady diet of “you don’t need any theology” or “theology is for those who waste their time in cemetery,”[15] modern Christians are now encouraged to rush out and engage the culture. How? With what? The short answer is: with precious little. If Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren are the best modern Christianity can do, with their non-existent exegesis and horrible principles of interpretation, then the solution to the problem of sin—oops! There’s that word we don’t like to use again!—is to rush out and buy an electric car and have our houses fitted for wind and solar energy. By the way, do Mr. Obama, Ms. Pelosi, Ms. Clinton, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kennedy, or any governing authorities touting wind and solar energy have those devices in their homes? Nope. None of them do, and they never will. Neither do ole Bri and Wallis. But it sounds so good to tell others to do it, doesn’t it? It is kind of like “engaging the culture.”

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, n.d.), p. 250.

[2] Ibid., 249.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 251.

[5] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., 252.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 253.

[10] David Wells, God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 9-10. Emphasis added.

[13] David Wells, Losing Our Virtue, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 33.

[14] David Wells, Above All Earthy P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 265.

[15] Cemetery here serves as a pejorative term for seminary.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Engaging the What? (V)

Culture in the Broadest Sense

In his Stone Lectureship series at Princeton, Herman Bavinck pointed out that “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.”[1] In this sense, all of us participate in “engaging culture.” But Bavinck continues and qualifies his remarks in this manner: “But this nature is twofold: it includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man, but also, in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also.”[2] This being the case, David Wells comments that “the issue that has emerged…is whether evangelicals will build their churches sola Scriptura or sola cultura.”[3] That is to say, we can get so caught up in dealing with, engaging “the culture” as an objective entity containing art, music, literature, TV, movies, and the like, that we forget or neglect the ideational view of culture.

Wells’ question is all the more pressing in light of what he chronicles about the modern evangelical church abandoning biblical truth for other, edgier accoutrements such as drama and liturgical dance. Why has this phenomenon occurred in modern Christianity? No doubt, there are a number of valid reasons, but Wells puts his finger on the pulse when he asserts, “But the largest factor in this internal change, I think, was that evangelicalism began to be infested by the culture in which it was living.”[4] It will be interesting to watch what transpires in the next while as our country and its economy go through some very difficult times. I say this because I’m convinced that the type of theology that has been prevalent in the United States since at least the mid-1970s can best be described as “soft.”

Along with the loss of masculinity among men in general, there has been a concomitant loss of masculine Christianity as well. I suppose we can blame part of it on feminism and political correctness, but in the final analysis the fault is ours. Far too many Christian leaders have been unwilling to stand in the gap for their respective congregations and have allowed a flood of unbiblical nonsense and claptrap to deluge their local congregations. Unwilling to stem the tide of a wide variety of unbiblical ideas and ideologies, they opened the spigots failing to realize that once you do that you cannot tell the water where to go.

Thinking that culture was something only external, the soul of the Christian and non-Christian alike was neglected. It was deemed chic to be acquainted with Renoir, van Gogh, and the one artist we insist on calling by his first name: Rembrandt (van Rijn), and we failed to take the spiritual dimensions of culture into account. It is one thing to know who these artists are, who Telemann, Corelli, Tartini, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Miles Davis are, but it is quite another thing to acknowledge up front 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.”[5]

In other words, there are two great circles of culture. To the first circle “belong all those activities of man for the production and distribution of material goods, such as agriculture, cattle-rearing, industry, and trade.”[6] By and large, in the 21st century engagement of culture, the production and distribution aspect has been neglected. If, for example, pastors are concerned to “engage” the culture at this point, we might expect to find more writings on Presbyterian and Reformed social ethics and certainly a better and broader understanding of basic economic principles among those pastors. Unfortunately, few possess such understanding.

The second “circle” gets the lion’s share of the “engaging the culture” attention these days. It “includes all that labor whereby man realizes objectively his ideals of the true, the good, and the beautiful, by means of literature and science, justice and statecraft, works of beauty and art, and at the same time works out his own development and civilization.” While some truncated attempts are being made today in this area, it all seems so one-dimensional and stereotypic. If byFaith magazine is any indicator, church plants seem to believe that art exhibits, jazz quartets, and classical music will draw a crowd. Bavinck, on the other hand, wrote extensively on a much more comprehensive explanation of a biblical life and worldview.

In the recently translated work, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, the interested reader will find articles on “Christian Principles and Social Relationships,” “On Inequality,” “”Trends in Pedagogy,” “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” and “Ethics and Politics,” just to mention the most salient.[7] That aside—but needing desperately to be addressed in our time—the questions that must be asked as we engage culture are: Whither culture? and What are our aims or goals as we engage culture and the culture despisers of Christianity?

Bavinck was convinced that “nobody can say whither modern culture will lead us; one can surmise, guess, speculate, but there is no certainty at all.”[8] There might be voices of criticism with a view to where modern culture is heading or taking us. Concerned voices might be raised about the immorality of modern culture and its relativism, existentialism, postmodernism, and nihilism, but precisely where it’s heading—and taking many Christians in its maelstrom—is at best a crap shoot. Sure, there are “trends” and sign posts along the way, but the journey can be a lot more dangerous than one might think initially. Pastors need to warm their congregations to be quite circumspect when it comes to dabbling in some facets of modern culture. The Hollywood sub-culture is highly ideological and the medium contains a clear message.

The second question has to do with what we intend by engaging our culture. Are we prepared to present Christianity’s cultured despisers with the unvarnished truth or would we prefer to soft pedal it, not wishing to offend their sensitivities? At what point, if any, are we prepared to tell them what Presbyterians believe? This does not mean that we should be cultural Philistines, but it does mean that when we engage the culture, we should hold to the concept of the “antithesis” vis-à-vis the pagan and Christian notion of culture.

If pastors are hot to trot to get their congregations to engage culture, there had better be some industrial strength training and “accompanied confrontation” to ensure that the Christian does not get absorbed into the culture and ends up calling him or herself a Christian all the while living and acting like a raw pagan. This can be done, of course, but one does have to wonder how much time this would take away from more important gospel considerations. In Bavinck’s day, he could ask, “Who, for example, defends the materialistic tone, the mammonism, the alcoholism, the prostitution so prevalent these days?”[9] Today, our answer could very well be: a number of people in Southern California, the majority of our politicians, along with a bevy of sundry actors, actresses, and hip-hop artists. Oh yeah, I left out the high school and college students.

Granted I’ve exaggerated somewhat, but the undeniable point is that we are not as adept as engaging the culture as we might think. There is a need for Christians to be more actively involved with culture and cultural matters, but there is also a danger in getting so involved in the culture that we end up looking, thinking, and acting like it. We certainly experienced that in the mega-church where the music tended to be purely secular with some sort of “Christian sauce” poured over it. It doesn’t make raucous music Christian by saying Jesus’ name every two or three words. By the same token, by having a jazz quartet play a Stan Getz selection prior to a worship service, by no means sanctifies the music.

In our next installment, we’ll follow Bavinck further as he clearly lays out what this involvement—or, to use the modern term, “engagement”—with culture is.

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 4.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Bavinck, TPR, 249.

[6] Ibid., 250.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (Harry Boonstra & Gerrit Sheeres [trans.]), (John Bolt [ed.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). This work is a translation of Bavinck’s Verzamelde Opstellen op het gebied van godsdients en wetenschap, (Kampen: Kok, 1921).

[8] Bavinck, TPR, 252.

[9] Ibid.