So here I was, opening up my browser with a beautiful view of the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon overlooking a pear orchard (where I am speaking), with a cup of java, and lo I behold two blog posts that didn’t cause me to wretch (so I wasn’t drunk) but did force me to double down on my objections to transformationalism in its various guises. Turns out both posts were responding to Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion.
The first was Peter Leithart’s defense of worldliness. In an interview with Ken Myers, Douthat talks about worldliness in the church and how “A lot of the most influential theologies in American life today are theologies that take various worldly ends as their primary end.” Leithart agrees that the church should not capitulate to earthly powers. But then he offers a reading of redemptive history in which God identifies with the world in such a way that orthodox Christianity is worldly. Toward the end Leithart concludes:
The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth pushed the point back to the pre-dawn of the world. In his stirring re-envisioning of the Reformed doctrine of election, Barth emphasized that election is not only God’s decision concerning human beings and the world but his decision concerning himself. By election, God chooses what kind of God he will be in relation to the world he creates in freedom. He wills to be God only by being God-for-us and God-with-us. He refuses to be God-without-us or God-without-world.
What Barth says about God’s choice before the beginning is consistent with what Christians believe about the end. Christians don’t expect to leave the world behind when history reaches its consummation. Scripture holds out the promise of a new heavens and a new earth, this world transfigured into the kingdom. Christians hope for the resurrection of the body, this flesh transfigured by the Spirit.
I’ll let the praise of Barth go — ahem, but I sure do which guys like Leithart, when thet go on riffs like this, would try to do justice to remarks by Christ like “my kingdom is not of this world,” or Paul like “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom.” In fact, the New Testament is rife with an anti-worldiness theme that doesn’t quite dovetail with the remark that Christians do not expect to leave the world behind. Anyone who wants to claim that anti-worldliness is gnostic will have to deal with Paul who was anti-gnostic and otherworldly. So can we at least acknowledge a paradox here? Or do we simply ignore the Bible’s talk of not being conformed to this world (or by implication expect the new heavens and new earth to be like this one)? Whatever the answer, it sure makes sense that neo-Calvinism’s baptism of the world and efforts to make it ours (in the name of Christ, of course) appeals to baby boomers getting over their fundamentalist upbringing. It may make sense, but it is not right.
The other post came from Tim Keller, again in response to Douthat. According to Keller (I haven’t read Douthat’s book yet), the New York Times columnist says that the kind of church that may respond well to the current world’s needs is one that has the following attributes:
First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a “missionary encounter with Western culture.”
Again, according to Keller, Douthat mentions Redeemer Big Apple as an example of this kind of church. Maybe. But New York, I understand, is a big city, and Douthat who at least works there may not know all the goings on at Redeemer or what his recommendation involves. At the risk of disagreeing with Douthat and in the hopes of keeping Redeemer honest, his point about ecumenism is a poignant one. A church has to do justice to its own tradition while not being mean or harsh to other Christians.
The problem here is how well Redeemer and Keller honor their own tradition or the churches that share the Reformed heritage. For instance, I recently learned that Keller is starting a Sunday school series to be published by Zondervan. It’s a free country and anyone can publish anything they want is such a land of free milk and democratic honey. But Douthat may want to consider that Redeemer belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America, a denomination that co-owns (with the OPC) Great Commission Publications. And GCP already publishes a Sunday school curriculum that is Reformed, covenantal, and Presbyterian. It may not have the urban bells and cosmopolitan whistles that hipster Presbyterians desire. But it is decent curriculum. To my knowledge, Redeemer has not contacted the publisher to talk about how the material might be improved so that Redeemer can use it (whether they can sell it is another matter). But if Keller and Redeemer wanted to do justice to their tradition and communion, they could show a little of the team player spirit that is supposed to characterize a Presbyterian communion.
Ross Douthat can’t be blamed for not knowing the inner workings of Reformed Protestantism in the United States. Then again, journalists are known to have some awareness of fact checking.
By the way, the idea that churches should equip members to be culturally engaged is remarkable. As it stands, churches have all they can do simply to catechize members and disciple them in the ordinary aspects of church life. To add yet another task to the church is to make ministry well nigh impossible. Not to mention that asking pastors — no offense — whose cultural standards may not be up to part with the grandeur of Western Civilization to school their members on the glories of Shakespeare, Homer, and Percy is borderline laughable. In fact, I don’t know of any church, mainline or sideline, whose cultural instincts I would trust. Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t add cultural engagement to the Great Commission.
Despite the rocky start to the morning, I had a delightful time with the saints here in Medford, contemplating the other world that transcends this one, our reminder of that world on Sundays when we ascend Mt. Zion with all the saints and angels, and enjoying the delightful weather and produce of this world available to the residents and visitors of southern Oregon.