Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why Don Carson Doesn't Believe in "Redeeming the Culture"

Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited is one the T4G book giveaways I'm most looking forward to reading. So it was with some anticipation that I scanned his interview with Derek Thomas. One snippet really caught my eye, since I think it nails an absolutely crucial point that is foreboding for the future of evangelicalism, given its current trajectory:
[M]any of those who speak easily and fluently of redeeming the culture soon focus all their energy shaping fiscal and political policies and the like, and merely assume the gospel. A gospel that is merely assumed, that does no more than perk away in the background while the focus of our attention is on the "redemption" of the culture in which we find ourselves, is lost within a generation or two.

20 comments:

Bruce said...

Here is a glaring example:
http://faithvisuals.com/content/mediafuel/evangelismisanaction.html

Sorry for my html illiteracy.

J. Dale Weaver, M.Div. said...

Once again, I must take issue with the sentiments expressed here, in this case by Don Carson. Certainly there is the need for balance, and absolutely the message of the Gospel and evangelism must be our priority, but to "leave the other things undone" is to miss an important part of our role as Christians in the greater human society.

Disciples of Jesus ought to be salt as well as light. In the setting of Roman culture in the first century, that was difficult. In our American culture today, that should be much easier, and our opportunities abound. The founders, thankfully, saw to that. Failure to take advantage of those opportunities as citizens, however, are failures to fulfill that aspect of our Christian mission.

I am thankful that William Wilberforce did not take such a view in 19th century England!

J. Dale Weaver, M. Div.

Anonymous said...

Come on Ben, this is blatant selective quoting to make a point.

Immediately before the words you quote, Carson says:

"Not for a moment do I want to deny that we are to serve as salt and light, that exiles may be called to do good in the pagan cities where Providence has appointed them to live (Jer 29), that every square foot of this world is under Christ's universal reign (even though that reign is still being contested), that the nations of the world will bring their "goods" into the Jerusalem that comes down from above."

And, right after the words you quote he says:

"At the same time, I worry about Christians who focus their attention so narrowly on getting people "saved" that they care little about doing good to all people, even if especially to the household of God."

According to your pastor, Carson's book exposes and explodes egregious reductionisms, but you seem to be quoting Carson selectively in defense of just such reductionism.

Like Carson, I have little patience for those who use "redeem culture" as a euphamism for simplistic partisan political activism. I also agree with Carson that any approach to redeeming culture that merely assumes the gospel will fail in short order.

Nevertheless, I believe that Scripture calls us to play a part in the redemption of all things -- including culture. As Carson says, "Getting this right is not easy, and inevitably priorities will shift a little in various parts of the world, under various regimes," but since when should we shy away from something just because it's not easy?

Keith

Ben said...

J. Dale,

It seems you've not read the context of the quote. I think you'll disagree with Carson less when you do that.

Ben said...

No Keith, I'm not selectively quoting. Carson is responding to the question, "Why don't you like the terminology of 'redeeming the culture'?" Clearly, his answer affirms that he doesn't like the term.

You're right that the broader context adds further clarification. But he's certainly not saying that those other things that are required constitute "redeeming the culture." He's arguing, I think, for the same kind of salt and light mindset I've affirmed here in the past. But I don't think that's redeeming the culture, and from this quote, it certainly seems that Carson agrees.

J. Dale Weaver, M.Div. said...

Ben:

Once I read the context that Keith gives in expanding on what Carson actually said, I think you're right. I don't disagree with him. At least not to the degree that the portion you originally quoted seemed to indicate.

I find it hard, however, given the entire statement in context, that you agree with Carson. The statement, while it may discourage the use of the phrase "redeeming the culture," still clearly advocates that we must be salt and light. Carson's urging for us to find balance is nothing I haven't said here myself.

Thanks for pointing out the context Keith -- and thanks for addressing the issue Ben.

J. Dale Weaver

Anonymous said...

Ben,

As I read it, Carson is saying that he doesn't like the term "Redeeming the Culture" because of the way too many use the term. But he is not saying that he is opposed to actually redeeming the culture properly understood.

You say you're for a salt and light mindset, but you don't think that's redeeming the culture. In the hopes of helping our communication, let me tell you what I hear in those statements: "We must be salt and light, but that won't really change the flavor of the culture, won't preserve any of the good elements of the culture, and won't bring light to the culture."

If we are salt -- that has not lost its savor -- we will change things, including culture. That change, if for the good, can be called "redemption". Call it something else if you like, that's of no concern to me. What is of concern is maintaining that real salt and real light bring real change. Not total, complete, ultimate, guaranteed permanent change, but real change nonetheless.

Keith

Bruce said...

Keith, I think I stand with Carson here as someone who wants to care about culture (or, more specifically, our neighbor as well as our stewardship/dominion mandate) but is skittish about the terminology "redeeming the culture." It just seems to muddy the waters with what we are doing evangelistically. I want to fully affirm that there is a connection (i.e., both are in response to sin in some sense, both anticipate a final restoration), but there is something different between a person being redeemed and the creation being redeemed, and that is guilt, personal responsibility for the wrong that has been done, violation of the law and character of God, and accountability to the authority of God.

Would you say the "change" of which you speak is a result (byproduct) of being a faithful Christian, or is it a goal for the Christian?

Ben said...

J. Dale,

I absolutely, unequivocally think we need to be salt and light. I've argued that here before. I also think that our good works in some way "commend the gospel," or to use biblical terminology, lead people "to glorify God."

Keith,

I hear you. Thanks for the clarification. As I said above, I believe Scripture teaches that good works lead in some way to changed hearts. It's a truism that they also change culture. I don't think that can be appropriately termed "redeeming the culture," and that seems to be identical to what Carson's arguing. Additionally, I don't think that cultural change is the mission of the church. But we've covered this ground before.

Ben said...

Bruce,

As always, I appreciate how you articulate things. I think you've said before that our good works give testimony to the breaking in of God's kingdom to this age. True?

Would you agree with me that the presence of these good works do not in and of themselves advance the kingdom?

Bruce said...

Yes, Ben, I would agree with that statement.

We reformational Protestants are always a little touchy about good works, since we are really strong on the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith apart from the works of the law.

But "good works" are still good, profitable, and necessary, are they not? Why? I believe it far more than enhancing our evangelism, though they do this indeed.

Good works are good not because they are meritorious acts, but because God made us to be doers of good. We were made to live, work, create, build, develop, tend, cultivate, nurture, manage, administrate this world and the creatures God put in it under us. When I as a Christian live rightly and well, that is glorifying to God as my creator. That's what Adam and Eve should have been/done, and that's what God's people will be and do as new creations in the new creation.

When I live in this world, not in the condition it was as God made it, but as marred by human sin (including my own), there are plenty of opportunities for me to take action against the corruption and brokenness of this world in very practical ways. This often looks the same as secular attempts to dull, mask, or even remove the effects of sin, but it is done out of compassion for the perpetrators and victims of sin and the curse, with a view not to solve the problem, but to bring relief along with the truth of a conquering King who will one day bring a perfect and final restoration, and welcoming those who trust him to join in his kingdom. Thus they are tangible expressions of our faith in Christ and hope-- our confident expection... and expectations-- of the coming kingdom.

This is where the message of the cross cuts to the heart of the matter: the problem of creation and human history is present in me! And, the Christ who comes to judge and eradicate sin and sinners (including me) offers to forgive me and bring me into the royal family, if I repent from my rebellious ways and join his side, being welcomed on the basis of his mercy and grace. This amnesty is made possible by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, for those who look to him in faith.

So, no, I don't think I can make the kingdom come or establish it any further beyond seeing people turn from false messiahs to the one true Lord and Christ. But I don't take that to mean that evangelism is important and "good works" are just for when I'm not busy doing "spiritual" work.

Anonymous said...

Bruce,

You wrote: "There is something different between a person being redeemed and the creation being redeemed, and that is guilt, personal responsibility for the wrong that has been done, violation of the law and character of God, and accountability to the authority of God."

I agree. Creation cannot be personally responsible for its fallen state because it's not a person. Only persons are responsible for the damage of sin. Nevertheless, all creation groans under the effects of sin, and all creation is being set free from its groaning. Christians are and ought to be playing a part in this liberation.

You asked: "Would you say the 'change' of which you speak is a result (byproduct) of being a faithful Christian, or is it a goal for the Christian?"

I would say it is both. I can't see how we can separate or distinguish such byproducts and goals other than to make distinctions for analysis. In "the real world" the things which ought to result from being a faithful Christian will be the goals of the faithful Christian.

Keith

Anonymous said...

Ben, You asked Bruce: "Would you agree with me that the presence of these good works do not in and of themselves advance the kingdom?"

Bruce agreed with you. I guess I can agree with that statement too, as far as it goes. However, I think the way it's phrased is misleading.

1) Nothing nor no one, other than God, can do anything in and of itself.

2) Good works are not the CAUSE of the advance of the Kingdom they are the RESULT of it. The Kingdom has already come, it is just coming more fully.

I still don't see why our good deeds -- culturally, personally, ecclesiastically, and in any other context -- cannot properly be termed "redeeming the culture." I can see why someone might prefer a different term (as I've already indicated), but I can't see how an argument can be made that it is inappropriate to use this terminology. Redeem just means "to buy back" or "to repair or restore."

Keith

Anonymous said...

Bruce,

You wrote: "Good works are good not because they are meritorious acts, but because God made us to be doers of good. We were made to live, work, create, build, develop, tend, cultivate, nurture, manage, administrate this world and the creatures God put in it under us. When I as a Christian live rightly and well, that is glorifying to God as my creator. That's what Adam and Eve should have been/done, and that's what God's people will be and do as new creations in the new creation."

To this and most of your last post, I say a loud and enthusiastic AMEN.

But when you write: "but it is done out of compassion for the perpetrators and victims of sin and the curse, with a view not to solve the problem, but to bring relief along with the truth of a conquering King who will one day bring a perfect and final restoration, and welcoming those who trust him to join in his kingdom," I wonder how or why all of this should be done "with a view not to solve the problem"?

What you write of IS the solution to the problem.

Keith

Bruce said...

Keith, I haven't been ignoring you-- I've just been away from the internet for a couple of days.

Let me see if we agree here or if our eschatologies are leading us in different directions. I certainly would contend that the gospel is the solution to the problem(s) of the world in one sense. It addresses the personal guilt of those who believe. Furthermore, as newly regenerate people are sanctified, there will be real change to families, communities, and societies. There will be positive tranformation in commerce, art, science, education, and government.

However, even if I invent a way to close the hole in the ozone layer, find a cure for cancer, broker a cease-fire in the Middle East, AND evangelize every people group in the world, there is still a redemption that awaits.

You are aware that Romans 8:18-25 is a key text on this issue. I read 8:23 and see that while there is a redemption that we can now experience, there is another redemption that we must wait for. I understand the waiting to be for Christ's return to judge the world and establish his kingdom in its fullness, and the result will be the perfect sanctification of believers, and the redemption of the physical creation (including my own body).

This is perhaps my "premillennialism" showing, though I really don't like the term. My concern is that we should be active in the world, but that we don't confuse what we can and should do with what Christ alone can do in eradicating sin and ending the curse.

It's because I can't do those things that all my efforts are relief, whereas Jesus' work is rescue. He alone eradicates sin and its effects. Until then, I can offer people the hope of Jesus Christ through forgiveness and real transformation, as well as giving them the practical help they need to make it through this less than perfect life.

"The poor you will have with you always," Jesus said. Some Christians have concluded that this means that there's no point in helping the poor. I believe he was saying the opposite-- that it's something we'll be doing until he returns. We should be doing what we can to help the poor, sick, and oppressed, but also know that we will not repair what's broken. We can only bind and salve the wounds and point them to the one who will make all things well.

So again, I am affirming that we should work to address the suffering of our world (via evangelism, relief work, and regular vocation), but to do this with a realistic understanding of what we can and cannot accomplish, and all in the context of what Christ has done and will do.

Anonymous said...

Bruce,

I don't think we have a major disagreement here.

I do think that your premillenialism causes you to use slightly different terminology and/or to focus/emphasize different things than I. However, most of what you say is far, far more in line with my views than what I hear from the typical premillenialist.

I don't have anything I would label as a major disagreement with your last post. I want to emphasize, though, that I think it is important to always remember that God normally uses means (secondary causes) to accomplish his ends. I think that He's done this in the past (He could have freed the Israelites from Egypt supernaturally without Moses, but he chose to use Moses), He does it in the present (He could work His holiness into us exclusively through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, but He chooses to use Word and Sacrament), and he will do it in the future. Christ alone can eradicate sin and the curse, but for much of this work, he chooses to do the work that is his alone by using people that he's supernaturally transformed and enabled.

All that said, I do agree that the final consumation of all things -- the coming of the Kingdom in all its fullness -- will involve some direct, unmediated, supernatural action from the Christ.

Peace

Keith

Bruce said...

Cool. Now if we could just get some of these dispensationalists on board, we might really get somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Well, the first thing we've got to do is get them to accept that they are in the Kingdom not some parenthetical never never land. Of course, once we've succeeded with that task, they won't be dispensationalists anymore! Until that day, we need to treat them with all the love, joy, and peace that characterizes the Kingdom -- even though, like the dwarfs in the Last Battle, they won't allow themselves to see the reality all around them.

Have you hugged a dispy today?

Keith

Lilith said...

Anonymous: 1) Nothing nor no one, other than God, can do anything in and of itself.

That reminds me of the joke where God and some scientists have a smackdown challenge to create life from dirt, and when the scientists reach down for a handful of dirt, God says, "Oh, no, no, no, get your own dirt!"

2) Good works are not the CAUSE of the advance of the Kingdom they are the RESULT of it. The Kingdom has already come, it is just coming more fully.

That's an interesting theory, and I agree in part, but if we see churches nearly empty in Europe and even America, and we hear talk of a "post-Christian" age, does that mean the Kingdom is waning? Because if you hitch the coming of the Kingdom in part to what man does, and man is not faithful, then the Kingdom might end up being stillborn. I don't have any fear on that score, because it's really a "kingdom" not a participatory republic.

Anonymous said...

Lilith,

I don't hitch the coming of the Kingdom to what man does. The Kingdom has come already but not yet fully. It is Christ's Kingdom. He will bring it to its fullness, but he will do so with men (as opposed to in the absence of men).

It may appear that the Kingdom is waning in certain places and at certain times, but at the end it will cover the earth.

Keith