Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.

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*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).

Teaching Theology from a Great Commission Perspective

Recently, President Akin challenged the faculty of Southeastern Seminary to make every classroom a “Great Commission classroom.” This challenge may seem to be easily met in courses on missions or evangelism, but what about courses in theology, philosophy, or church history? What could it possibly mean for a theology course to be a “Great Commission course”? Should the professor wear a Mao shirt or some lederhosen to class, in order to demonstrate his cross-cultural awareness? Or perhaps carry an urungu on his belt? Should he subliminally whisper the names of unreached people groups every time he teaches on the Trinity, the Incarnation, or on building a revelational epistemology? (If you are left wondering, the answer to these last few questions is “no, not so much.”) In light of the President’s challenge, I have jotted down a few thoughts on teaching theology from a Great Commission perspective.

During the upcoming three semesters, I will be teaching Theology I, II, and III at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and therefore have the opportunity to reflect on teaching theology missionally. The thread of mission is woven deeply into the plot of the biblical narrative. It begins with the nature of God, continues with his call for Israel to be a blessing to the nations, and culminates in his sending of the Messiah, whose incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection provide for the salvation of the nations who will dwell with him forever on a new creation. Since Christian Scripture has the concept of mission at its heart, Christian theology will also position the concept of mission centrally.

But in addition to the “central location” of this notion within the biblical narrative and therefore within Christian theology, the theology classroom can also be a “Great Commission classroom” in its pedagogical strategy. For each of the loci of doctrine (God, Christ, Spirit, revelation, man, salvation, church, and end times), we will begin by treating the doctrine exegetically, historically, and systematically. After having shown the coherence of the doctrine as well as its relation to other doctrines, we will also discuss the doctrine in relation to other worldviews, religions, and philosophies. We will try to show how each doctrine subverts its counterpart in the New Atheism, postmodern Perspectivalism, Eastern religions, Islam, and even Southern Fried Religion.

Further, we will discuss how each doctrine affects ministry and mission. Christian Scripture and its attendant evangelical doctrine provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for our ministry models, strategies, and methods. Indeed, for the past three decades the churches of the SBC have declared that the Scriptures are ipsissima verba Dei, the very words of God. What we have declared, however, is not always consistent with what we have done. Therefore, we want to be careful not to (unintentionally or unconsciously) ignore the centrality of Scripture even in “practical” matters of ministry and mission.

Finally, we emphasize that the Great Commission is not concerned merely or exclusively with international missions. From the Great Commission, we learn that our Lord commands us to make disciples (discipleship is far-ranging, including teaching, modeling, rebuking, exhorting etc.) of all the nations (including this nation, the USA), baptizing them in the name of the Triune God (and immersing them in the life of the redeemed community), teaching them all things that he has commanded us (the entirety of Christian Scripture), and trusting that he will be with us always (it is he who is the organizer, energizer, and director of our commission).

In a nutshell, every classroom at SEBTS should be a Great Commission classroom because every page of Scripture and every locus of doctrine relates in some way to the charge given to us above. Christian Theology is the most exciting thing that a person could possibly study, and one of the exciting things about it is that it not only drives us to ministry and mission, but shapes the same ministry and mission. At its heart, theology is missional.

Molinists and Calvinists: Locked in a Wordy Embrace with the Same Gargoyle

I have put my hand to the tar baby. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Broadman & Holman) came out this month, a book in which I tackle the divine sovereignty–human responsibility conundrum, specifically as it relates to the area of salvation. As the title indicates, the book approaches the issue from a Molinist perspective, which means I advocate a high view of sovereign control but a libertarian understanding of free will (though in a stripped-down version I call “soft-libertarianism”). After grinding my brain cells on the subject for the past ten years, I am struck by how much compabilists (read Calvinists) and Molinists have in common. We agree much more than we disagree. And we are wrestling with same puzzle: how God is entirely the Author of our salvation while we are entirely the origin of our sin. As Allen Guelzo describes the efforts of theologians and philosophers over the past two centuries, “we have been locked in a wordy embrace with the same gargoyle” (Guelzo: 1999, 108). To pile on another metaphor, Calvinists approach the tension from one side while Molinists come at it from the other, but in the end we are both slamming our heads against the same brick wall.

Without minimizing our differences, let me list some areas of agreement between Molinists and Calvinists:

1. Divine Sovereignty and human free will are both profoundly true. We hold to both because the Bible simultaneously teaches both. We reject two opposite but equally dangerous tendencies: the denial of free will (fatalism) and the deification of free will (open theism comes to mind). Philosopher Robert Kane proposes a version of “soft-libertarianism” that goes a long way in addressing the objections many Calvinists have had towards libertarianism, and in the book I incorporate his insights in my discussion on human choices.

2. God, whenever He chooses, accomplishes His will with precision and success (Isa 14:24; Prov 16:33; Matt 10:29-30)). Some might call this a version of meticulous providence. Molinists and Calvinists equally affirm God’s comprehensive control of both the means and the ends.

3. Despite the fact that God can and does accomplish His will through the wicked decisions and actions of sinful men (Gen 50:10; Acts 2:23), God is not responsible for evil nor is He the origin of sin. This is certainly not a distinctly Molinist doctrine. The Canons of Dort declare that the very notion of God as the author of sin is “a blasphemous thought” (Art 15).

4. Apart from a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, no one can repent and believe the Gospel. Fallen humanity has lost free will in the one place it really matters–in the ability to respond to God. Not only do Molinists and Calvinists agree on this point, but so do all orthodox Christians. To deny this fact is to embrace Pelagianism. The disagreement between Molinists and Calvinists lies in our respective understanding of the nature and extent of God’s enablement (i.e., whether it is always effectual). This dispute must not be papered over, but it shouldn’t be caricatured either.

5. The Gospel is genuinely proffered to every hearer. If Calvinists generally find unsatisfactory the Molinist approach to point four, then Molinists usually look with skepticism at the typical Calvinist explanation on this point. But let’s remember that all good Calvinists and Molinists affirm “the well-meant offer” of the Gospel. As Wayne Grudem points out in his discussion of the Savior’s invitation of Matt 11:28-30, “Every non-Christian hearing these words should be encouraged to think of them as words that Jesus Christ is even now, at this very moment, speaking to him or to her individually…This is a genuine personal invitation that seeks a personal response from each one who hears it” (Grudem: 1994, 694. Emphasis original).

So we affirm that salvation is a sovereign, monergistic work of God, such that the redeemed are saved entirely by grace. At the same time, we genuinely repent and believe, we truly receive the Gospel, such that the Christ-rejecter is damned by his own choice. The Bible clearly teaches both concurrent truths. And we must simultaneously affirm both. To coin a phrase from Peter Thuesen, on this issue the biblical witness requires that we must be theologically ambidextrous.