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.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Engaging the What? (IX)

A Clear Account

We have been investigating Herman Bavinck’s Stone Lectures and particularly his discussion of the relationship between God’s revelation to man and culture.[1] Bavinck believed that “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.”[2] In the 1700s, it became fashionable to speak about “culture” “along with other terms, such as civilization, enlightenment, development, education” and the like. When the word “culture” is employed, it “indicates generally cultivation, improvement, and always presupposes an object which must be improved.”[3]

If Christians engage culture and are called to improve it, how does this occur if the Christians are content merely to dialogue or to show the cultural despisers of Christianity that Christians are “nice”? Does engaging culture include complimenting an “artist” on a piece of music that is mere drivel and nonsense (for example, the “music” of John Cage) or fawning over a taxpayer endowed piece of “art” that is a cross in a bottle of urine? In our time, we are embarrassed that Christianity has not done more in the arts, but we seem to fail to remember that “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.”[4]

To return to Bavinck’s comment about the “object which must be improved,” we understand that this object “may be indicated generally by the name of nature, for it always consists of something not made by man, but offered to him by creation.”[5] Therefore, when Christians engage culture and the cultured despisers of Christianity, it appears that certain “givens” or axiomatic matters must be considered, namely how nature may be improved and how man can honor the Creator (and Redeemer and Sanctifier) in the process. This is why Bavinck can say that culture is inclusive of all the labor that human beings expend on nature. Moreover, “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” must be brought into the equation. Engaging culture, therefore, relates to the total man; body and soul.

But in many church plants and some PCA church plants this is not the case. Non-Christians are invited to display their works of “art” and far too often there is no challenge from the Christian side about their hermeneutic of art or of their life and worldview. After all, we would not want to be offensive in any way, and we all know that the gospel is a stumbling block of offense. Thus many encourage secular artists in their secularism and unbelief; others mistakenly believe that art or “the arts” are neutral. They are not. There is a definite anti-God bias. The artist must be confronted—at some point—with their unbelief and need for a Savior. I realize that this doesn’t sound all that intellectual, but it is truly the most important part of the equation. Emergents don’t believe what I’m saying because they’re rushing madly towards universalism. Youth pastors think this is nonsense because most of them are virtually entirely bereft of theology, although there are some good youth pastors—a few; a handful; one or two. Even among my PCA colleagues there are those who are embarrassed that they’re Presbyterian. One can only wonder why one would remain in a church of which they are loath to use the name and inform Christianity’s cultured despisers that they are in a Presbyterian church.

Far too often, we suffice with someone telling us that they are not religious, but that they are very spiritual. Right. As Entertainment Weekly noted (I know, but my subscription to the National Enquirer expired), “Pop culture is going gaga for spirituality…Eastern meditation, self-help lingo, a vaguely conservative craving for ‘virtue,’ and a loopy New Age pursuit of ‘peace.’”[6] Few pause, reflect, and then accuse the nonsense that passes as spirituality today. We fail to decipher “the Gnostic character of the soup that we call spirituality in the United States today.”[7] And this is part of a larger problem of sucking up to pagan artists and inviting them to display their products in our churches without any critique; only appreciation. Appreciation of what? Art without God? Art against God? Many of these “artists” are invoking their right to have their own private convictions. They cling to them “no matter how ridiculous” and expect them to be “not only tolerated politically but respected by others.”[8] Horton compares European and American nihilism and concludes that while our European counterparts just denied God, “American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It’s all good!”[9]

How far has evangelicalism devolved in this regard? Horton surmises, “Americans just want to be left along to create their own private Idaho. While evangelicals talk a lot about truth, their witness, worship, and spirituality seem in many ways more like their Mormon, New Age, and liberal nemeses than anything like historical Christianity.”[10] Curtis White, writing in Harper’s puts it this way: “We would prefer to be left alone, warmed by our beliefs-that-make-no-sense, whether they are the quotidian platitudes of ordinary Americans, the magical thinking of evangelicals, the mystical thinking of New Age Gnostics…”[11] And this is precisely the dilemma that many who want to engage culture—within and without the PCA—must face and give a biblical answer to. If we invite artists to our church plant openings or continued meetings, what are we attempting to accomplish? There is a broad chasm between belief in the true living God of Scripture and unbelief.

This being the case, Bavinck contended that the primary stumbling block between Christianity and secularism was supernaturalism.[12] Sadly, there are a number within the camp that calls itself “Christian” that find the supernaturalism problematic as well, or at least prefer “selective supernaturalism.” But Bavinck does not allow such a theology of convenience. He avows that “Christianity is the pure and true religion” and that therefore “it is not less, but more supernatural than all other religions.” How does he draw out the difference between Christianity and the other world religions or ideologies? The other world religions, he explains, “dissolve the godhead into all kinds of natural powers, see everywhere in the world only the influences of good or evil spirits, and cannot therefore bring man into a true fellowship with God.”[13] To put this in a modern context, Bavinck would deny the Emergent church movement’s notion of a Christian in the way of Hindu, Buddhism, or Islam, only to mention a few. The creeds and confessions of the Church were not designed to speak to a McLaren-esque tertium quid.

In their obvious liberalism (no creeds, only deeds; smells and bells), they desire to defend the indefensible. It would seem that one of the primary reasons both the mega-church as well as the Emergent church movement have either explicitly or implicitly decried the historic creeds of the Christian faith and doctrine is because if people studied either one, they would quickly discover just how off base, misleading, and wrong these movements are. It’s far better to tell your congregants that the creeds are just doctrine, if you don’t know them yourself and you want to keep the “troops” in the dark. Worse yet, some pastors negate and scoff at knowing doctrine from their pulpit. This way, they keep their people ignorant of the things of the faith. Anecdotes and joining Habitat for Humanity are sufficient to assuage the seared consciences of many. The devotees to modern culture are all too happy to hear something “upbeat” and “snappy” instead of learning about who God really is and what he expects of them in terms of holiness and obedience. All of the modern accoutrements and cool entertainment factors are departures from Scripture and what the Church through the centuries, especially since the Reformation, has taught.

Allow me to illustrate briefly. Some today believe that creeds are stodgy and don’t discuss the important, practical, and pertinent aspects of 21st century life. John Muether writes, “We have converted the church to a commodity that solicits the patronage of customers, offering therapeutic sanctuaries of relaxation and relevance. The churches are shed of whatever seems unappealing to the greatest number of potential believers, including their history, denomination distinctiveness, and especially their duty to exercise discipline.”[14] Willem van ‘t Spijker thinks just the opposite, however. In his article, “The Continued Relevance of the Heidelberg Catechism,” he points out that the Westminster Shorter Catechism “places most of the emphasis on the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.”[15] Therefore, according to a number of modern “spirituality” pundits, if the modern Christian is curious about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, one of the worst approaches is carefully to examine what Scripture and the orthodox confessions of Christ’s Church teach. More helpful, the modern Christian thinks, would be Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, or Two-Buck-Chuck Finney.

In an excellent article that I highly recommend, John Muether wrote the following insightful analysis of the modern Church in the March 2009 issue of Tabletalk: “Mary is a deeply committed evangelical Christian who is eager to work for the transformation of culture. A home-schooling mother of three teenagers, she serves on the board of a crisis pregnancy center, and she devotes Saturday mornings to leading a local campaign for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. But a funny thing happens on Sunday. Mary awakens with uncertainty about where or even whether to go to church. Her family began attending a new church six months ago because it offered a better youth program, but her husband is not pleased with the pastor, and he prefers the message at a church he has begun to attend on Saturday nights. She is still attached to her small group at her former church, which is planning to launch a home church group.”[16] Muether continues, “What Mary fails to recognize is that the moral subjectivism and cultural relativism that she combats for six days a week is the very phenomenon to which she succumbs on the Lord’s Day. Zealous to defend moral order and transcendent authority in the home and society, she struggles to submit to the authority of the church.”[17]

And this is a major problem with modern Christians as they attempt to engage culture. Without realizing it, they have been engaged by culture repeatedly and it has hammered them so badly, yet in such a subtle manner, that they no longer recognize its profound influence upon them. As Muether puts it, “A child without a family is an orphan to be pitied. A man without a country is a refugee to be welcomed. A Christian without a church is, well, a typical American evangelical.”[18] While many today claim to be seeking “authenticity” (which, by the way, few, if any, have taken the time to define. It’s like “engaging (the) culture” in that no one wants to define what it is.), fewer than 50% of those who call themselves Christians are members or regular attendees of any church. Here’s the sum of the matter and Muether nails it: “Ironically, evangelicals like Mary are denying authority where God is most eager to ordain it. Contrary to contemporary wisdom, the Bible teaches that one cannot yield to the authority of the Word without submitting to the authority of the church.”[19] Or, as both Augustine and Calvin said it, you cannot have God as your Father unless you have the Church as your mother.

How does this manifest itself in our modern culture and in the modern Church? Here is Muether’s description: “Individuals who come to churches after comparison shopping are not catechicized [sic] into habits that enable them to submit to the authority of the church. Rather, they are conditioned to bail once the church fails to meet their needs. Thus, Christians today can no more imagine the church usurping their sovereignty as consumers than they can imagine the same of Wal-Mart.”[20] And this is further complicated by PCA church plants that want to hide the fact they’re PCA or constantly attempt to sweep PCA distinctiveness—in doctrine, polity, or ethics—under the proverbial carpet. It is precisely this approach that does more damage than good, yet few want to acknowledge that fact.

What a number of modern Christians fail to take into account is the fact that belief and unbelief are diametrically opposed. Bavinck explains, “Christian morals lays stress upon sin and grace, the ethics of evolution proclaims the natural goodness of man; the former regards man as a lost being, who needs salvation, the latter sees in him the one creature who can reform and saved the world; the first speaks of reconciliation and regeneration, the second of development and education; for the one the new Jerusalem comes down from God out of heaven, for the other it comes slowly into being by human effort; there divine action moves history, here evolution is the all-directing process.”[21] Bavinck concludes then, “But this is certain,—if the gospel is true, then it carries with it its own standard for the valuation of all culture.”[22] Those claiming that Jesus (and his ethics) is in their camp need to keep in mind that “Neither shallow optimism nor weak pessimism finds in him an ally.” In fact, Jesus “accepted the social and political conditions as they were, made no endeavor to reform them, and confined himself exclusively to setting the value which they possessed for the kingdom of heaven.”[23]

Bavinck summarizes what he considers to be the proper Christian perspective on Christianity and culture when he says, “In a word, agriculture, industry, commerce, science, art, the family, society, the state, etc.,—the whole of culture—may be of great value in itself, but whenever it is thrown into the balance against the kingdom of heaven, it loses all its significance…. The truth of this declaration can be denied only by the man who shuts his eyes to the awful seriousness of real life.”[24] As we close off this installment, I want to leave you with these concluding thoughts from Bavinck: “Not only does Scripture teach that man has lost himself, and may lose himself more and more, but our own experience also testifies to this. Man is lost before God, for he does not give himself to God, and does not serve him in love, but flees from him, and hides himself from his presence. He is lost for his neighbor, for he abandons him in his need, and sacrifices him to his own interest in the struggle for existence. He is also lost for himself, for there is a cleft between his being and his consciousness, a dissension between his duty and his desire, between his conscience and his will. That is the reason why we seek diversions in the world; instead of re-collecting our thoughts we scatter them, and in proportion as with our representations and imaginations, with our thoughts and desires, with our inclinations and passions, we move in various directions, we lose more and more the center of our own life. Man is ever losing himself more and more.”[25]

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

[2] Ibid., 249.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeff Gordinier, “On a Ka-Ching and a Prayer,” Entertainment Weekly, October 7, 1994.

[7] Mike Horton, Christless Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p. 160.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 161.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Curtis White, “Hot Air Gods,” Harper’s, December 2007, p. 13.

[12] Bavinck, TPR, 254. He writes, “It is supernaturalism, which in point of fact forms the point of controversy between Christianity and many panegyrists of modern culture.”

[13] Ibid., 255.

[14] John Muether, “Knowing His Voice. The authority of Christ’s church, Tabletalk, March 2009, p. 17.

[15] Willem van ‘t Spijker, “The Continued Relevance of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Willem van ‘t Spijker (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (Gerrit Bilkes [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), p. 263.

[16] Muether, Knowing, 15.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Bavinck, TPR, 256.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 257.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 257-258.