The Church, Theology and Culture

(I was going to title this, The Church, Theology and the ETS President’s conversion to RCC, but it grew)

Over the last several months (more intensely this past month) I have been doing some reading and study (not nearly enough of either) and have become more concerned over not only the biblical illiteracy that I see but theological illiteracy. And then Sunday night I read that Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, the current president of ETS had just converted (or in his case converted back) to the Roman Catholic Church (you can read it in his own words and the ETS response)

So, rather than simply being concerned, I decided to try to start cataloging some of the areas I am concerned with:

1. the average attendee knowledge about God–some are functional Open Theists, others so rigid in their focus on sovereignty that they question even a challenge to pray

We often challenge people to live for the glory of God, but do they really know who He is?

2. the challenge we face on the authenticity and authority of the Bible–in the face of modern yet recycled attacks from the Da Vinci Code, Misquoting Jesus, the Jesus tomb, et. al.

How will we enable individuals and particularly our youth to develop a trust in the Word of God and the ability to withstand the “attacks” they will face?

3. issues related to the atonement and evangelicals moving away from substitutionary atonement

Several recent articles and books (some from a philosophical perspective, others from a more theological perspective) are denying penal substitution. How do we communicate the central accomplishments of the cross?

4. science and the Bible–it seems in some areas of science we are undiscerning (reproductive technologies for examples) and accept what doctors and scientist state, but in other areas (creation issues for examples) we don’t even want to engage in discussion

How do we engage wisely in the discussion between science and faith? Should creation issues be elevated to core doctrines (some are using this as a litmus test for orthodoxy, even salvation and spirituality)? How can we help people understand the issues, think biblically and know what is absolute or fundamental and what is not? How do we equip our children with truth not to win arguments but to share the gospel? How do we as a church engage in difficult issues without attacking people?

5. a lack of a reasoned biblical world view, the ability to think biblically, to understand when I am thinking culturally, traditionally and perhaps not biblically–and with that, the willingness to be biblical even when it goes against tradition or even political lines

This is tied to number 4, how do we balance teaching truth and teaching people how to think? How do we equip people, particularly young people, to withstand the attacks of the “new atheists” and developed sound world views that will enable them to deal with constant change?

6. a tie to tradition and individualism that keeps us from valuing relationship (not to say anything about the need for a culture of change or the challenge to keep 20 and 30 something’s)

How do we move people from a deep-seated American individualism to a biblical focus on community, the body? Does our programming conflict with what we communicate is a value?

7. our ability to interact, engage and challenge a postmodern world and emerging/emergent church (where traditional apologetics don’t apply)

Are we willing to ask the difficult questions? Can we engage a culture in which 72% don’t believe in absolute truth and where 94% of college students believe there are no moral absolutes? A world in which our belief in a singular means of salvation labels us intolerant and hateful rather than loving? We must be willing to evaluate our preunderstanding, understand where traditional apologetics and “church as normal” may not be appropriate. Be willing to refine our ability to speak to the emerging culture, but also not so align ourselves with culture that we make the same mistakes the emergent church says the modernist church has.

8. And that’s without saying anything about the ability to dichotomize or compartmentalize our lives to the degree that some have knowledge without change or how character development at the heart level is easily replaced by a focus on external, behavior modification or behavior containment.

How do we challenge those who teach to not simply dispense information, but actively engage people in thinking, processing truths of Scripture in a way that heart issues are addressed and applications are lived out? How do we speak truthfully about social evils without becoming legalistic? How do we challenge people to self-examination–so that we are aware when we become desensitized to sin, comfortable with exposure to something that is not beneficial or that doesn’t build us up (1 Cor 6:12; 10 23)?

I realize we can never force people to change, but we can change our methodology so as to hopefully challenge people’s thinking and therefore to real change. (This is convicting)

To this list, I would probably also add the redemptive-movement / complementarian hermeneutic (though not extensive yet), the passionate attack by egalitarians on those of us who “still believe” in biblical roles for men and women, and the politicalization (if that is a word) of the church.

I’m sure there are a number of other issues that you would add, and I would value your input and additions to this list. But not only your additions, but suggestions and help in addressing these issues. I have so much to learn and in many of these areas feel woefully inadequate.

We have work to do.

So to keep the conversation going (to borrow a common phrase)

What do you think the top 3 issues are?

Where would you start?

How would you start?

6 thoughts on “The Church, Theology and Culture”

  1. Top 3 issues

    (Tie)
    1.) The average attendee knowledge about God–some are functional Open Theists, others so rigid in their focus on sovereignty that they question even a challenge to pray

    2.) Our ability to interact, engage and challenge a postmodern world and emerging/emergent church (where traditional apologetics don’t apply)

    Are we willing to ask difficult questions?

    Only if we are willing to accept difficult answers. Many have lost the ability to think in a critical manner. In our quest for orthodoxy and education we have imparted the “right” answers, but have not been as vigilant about imparting the background. I have rarely seen systematic theology addressed at any church, it is usually left for “advanced classes”, and its importance is therefore undermined. In many fellowships today allegiance to orthodoxy is paramount. Those who differ may be labeled as uneducated, divisive or heretical. They are certainly not in line for leadership. Asking questions implies an honest search for the truth. If the answers have already been predetermined, why should one proffer a response at the risk of rejection, ridicule or worse? We tend to accept thinking out loud and mulling over nuances by our university students, but do we feel comfortable with this in the church, or among friends, where leaders cannot carry out “damage control” among those who may have been exposed to infectious alternative thinking? What is the need to think critically if the answers have already been determined? Asking questions inside the church obviously entails a degree of risk, given the difficulties we have today digesting an event removed in distance, history, language and culture.

    Once we stop thinking critically, we tend not to mull the Word over in our heart. If thinking is not at a premium, we can focus on the externals and we can fit in with everyone else who has the same answers to the same questions. If we want critically thinking followers, we need to let them think. The key is to develop thought leaders who can accurately handle the Word of Truth. Can we trust the Spirit to guide believers to the truth, or are we doomed to follow the RCC model of telling followers what the truth is / what to believe? Ideally we develop a structure where believers can ask and answer questions in an environment where lines of thought can be pursued and followed to their logical conclusion. The believer develops a systematic theology so that he has the tools to apply to the next situation. I am not advocating a theological free for all, clearly a protective arena is needed (which, of course leads us back to what I think got us here in the first place).

    As the world moves further and further away from traditional apologetics, we will need leaders who can see opportunities to impart truth, minister, and reach out in culturally relevant ways. The more ingrained we are as a church, the less we will ever be able to see these opportunities. It may be an uncomfortable thought, but we may need the people who are “out there” to be out there.

    How to handle this? We need to be able to identify and ask the penetrating questions that take us down to our root assumptions. What do I really believe in, and what is the rock solid basis for it? If it isn’t rock solid, why am I dogmatic about it? Why am I teaching it? This will eventually lead to the another point you raise, that being a biblical world view. What we teach needs to fit universally, not just in Kansas.

    3.) Science and the Bible
    Specifically, the church and para-church’s desire to exert perceived Biblical science onto society. I didn’t go to Divinity school to become a physician. NASA did not consult the Bible to go to the moon. The Bible is not a science text. I believe in its accuracy, I am just not sure we are always interpreting and applying it accurately. Every time something we have been dogmatic about is disproved, we undermine our credibility when discussing issues the Bible specifically addresses. A great deal of angst occurs in the church when non-believers do not accept Biblical teachings about creationism, abortion, and homosexuality etc. Getting non-believers to agree with us on these issues does not change their standing before God. Why are we expending the energy in this arena when other areas are vital? Culture will never be changed by the church using the government as an agent of change.

  2. Great thoughts Jack. I appreciate you response.

    I agree that an environment where people are allowed to ask difficult question is threatening to some and it can even cause disunity. Part of the issue revolves around allowing questions and providing boundaries.

    See my post “Thinking theologically.” (See what you think about that.)

    I think we need to understand what our essentials are and in what situations we engage in asking difficult questions. For example, allowing people to ask difficult questions about the nature of salvation is a good, but since that would be a core believe, should we leave them with “wrong” answers? We should seek to move them towards truth, but without the usual, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “You should know better.” approach. This requires walking a fine line, where people are not only allowed to question, but encouraged to question, encouraged to reveal their doubts, and where in relational context people can engage in study together to seek answers to those questions and doubts (where there are answers).

    In other non-core issues, the boundaries we need to provide might simple be–encourage them to think deeply, but to major on the majors. That is, encourage thinking and study, but keep looking at how the issue you are studying fits into the rest of Scripture (correlation) so as to keep it in perspective.

    And this raises the question of what teachers and preachers should reveal about their own questions. (That might be a whole other post)

    As for your comments on science and Bible, I agree. The Church, particularly in North America, has spent too much time, energy and “clout” on winning the wrong battles. And we are loosing a much larger battle.

  3. Here’s a thought:

    Most of the frustrations we have with culture, christians’ theology, apologetics and engagement stems from a movement driven by 2 men: John Nelson Darby and Cyrus I. Scofield. The mainstreaming of dispensationalist thought and doctrines was a direct cause of the “tearing away” of christianity from the culture at the turn of the century. “Fundamentalists” did to the US what had been done to Britain by the Plymouth Brethren – splintered the christian body without hope of internal reform. The world, damned as it is and cut adrift by Darbyism as unsavable, continues to make up its own rules without the “salt” that was built into the system by God.

    Today, dispensationalists (of the “classic” stripe mostly) continue to adhere to their “end of the world” theology and Left-Behind biblical gyrations, driving our believing youth further and further from real life and God’s mission there. After all, why bother with culture and life if we’re all going to be “raptured” away at any moment? Tell me kids don’t see through that.

    Isn’t Calvary even hosting a “prophecy” seminar with the “friends” of Israel soon? Somehow I don’t think they’ll be taking any questions…but will be happy to proclaim the end (think Jehovah’s Witnesses pick-a-date)and the “rapture” away from this oh-so-horrible world. Sigh.

    Until we as the body get back to the Biblical passion of engagement with life and others (that is, pre-Darby) we can’t expect much progress on most any of the fronts you identify, Steve. Happily, Darbyism is on the wane even the US. God bless!

  4. Please, when posting, use real names. Differing view are fine. But just as it’s not worth reading “anonymous” criticism–Anonymous comments lack credibility.

    It’s easy to throw stones at something that really doesn’t exist. And easy to burn down straw men that are created for the purpose of burning.

    Thinking theologically requires not just criticism but suggestions. Interaction with biblical passages, exegesis and clear thought.

    With the logic of the “splintered the christian body without hope of internal reform” then I would assume the author of this post believes the Reformation was a mistake?

  5. Steve,
    There is another theological issue that floats to the surface in every generation–the possibility of salvation without explicit faith in Jesus Christ.
    I first heard this in a Sunday School class when I was about 12 years old (yes that was after the flood). The view that people can be saved by multiple means (1) explicit faith in Christ, 2) a positive response to general revelation, 3) following the best in world religions, 4) a after death evangelism [according to Clark Pinnock]) continues today as “Wider Hope” in theological circles and popularly in the pews as “my God wouldn’t send people to hell who have never heard the message of Christ.” This is only rarely addressed in churches. Of course, if people can be eternally saved without faith in Christ, the Great Commission is voided and missionaries may become messengers of condemnation (by sharing the Gospel and causing people to come under the requirement of explicit faith in Christ).
    This is just another issue of many confronting biblically minded believers today.

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