The Possibility of Challenging and Transforming Culture with Christian Truth

In a previous post, I spoke of some of the inadequate approaches to Christian witness in the world. If you remember, I defended the permissibility of a wider approach to engagement with the surrounding culture, beyond the (utterly essential) task of proclaiming the heart of the gospel. Indeed, our mandate is transformation in this world, and not simply the salvation of souls for a life of disembodied bliss in the hereafter. Without wanting to minimize the absolute importance of proclaiming the gospel – from which all our other activities flow – there is a need for cultural, philosophical and social engagement with the world. Our call is to be salt and light, which necessarily entails all kinds of witness, and all types of ministry. This is so, whether one is speaking about evangelism, outreach to the poor, advocacy on behalf of certain causes, philosophical engagement with other beliefs or worldviews, or an apologetic defence of Christian truth and wisdom. (A quick note on terminology: when I speak of “Christian truth” or “Christian wisdom”, I am not simply referring to the gospel – though this is certainly included. What I am referring to is that sphere of ethical knowledge that flows out of a Christian perspective, and that provides people with a framework for living. This is what I have in mind when I talk about the transformation of culture).

What I want to do here is defend the likelihood of challenging and transforming the culture with Christian truth, which necessarily includes the work of evangelism and explicit Christian witness, but is not limited to those tasks. Of course, the ultimate goal of our witness is to create disciples who are devoted to Jesus. But as God’s people, living in his world, we are called – even commanded – to preserve his truth and righteousness, both private and public, wherever we find ourselves. What I am talking about here is public Christianity: the kind of Christianity that, at some level, influences and enriches the surrounding cultural, social, political and philosophical environments. At this point, I should pre-empt some questions, for my thesis may be a contentious one. If, as some would argue, Christian truth can only be received by those who are already believers and disciples, what is the point in trying to persuade others to our point of view? If, for example, we try and uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman (I choose this particular example, since it represents one of the flashpoints between two groups that possess widely differing worldviews), then how can we possibly do so in such a way without being told that our view – rooted as it is in Christian metaphysics, theology and ethics – has no relevance or resonance outside the faith? How can we, as God’s transformed and transforming people, possibly hope to submit an account of our ethical and metaphysical positions that have currency beyond the already-devoted? Is Christian truth for Christians only, or is there some way that it can resonate with people beyond the church?

These questions notwithstanding, I think we can argue that engaging in this sort of enterprise is not only warranted, it is possible. It is possible to conceive of a kind of Christianity that can take its place in the marketplace of ideas, doing the work of social and cultural transformation. It is possible that moral and ethical truths gleaned from Christianity can have epistemological credibility in the public square. What is more, I am persuaded that these things are so precisely because of the wisdom of Scripture. Let me explain what I mean. In the course of reading and studying the Bible’s wisdom literature on and off over the past couple of months, I have become convinced that not only are we called to effect wide transformation within whatever environment(s) we find ourselves, but that we can also believe in the broad efficacy of a Christian perspective or worldview, which resonates with society-at-large. In particular, the book of Proverbs gives us a new perspective on the possibility of successfully offering Christian truth to a world that is often starved of it.

The first nine chapters of the book, which together form the foundation for the rest of the sage’s work, give us some insight into the all-encompassing nature of wisdom. After spending several chapters warning his young charge of the dangers of folly and commending “lady wisdom” to him, the author reaches his great, poetical account of wisdom’s origins and her role in God’s world. He speaks of wisdom being the first of God’s works, “appointed before eternity” (8:22-23). In personifying wisdom, such words introduce us to the paradox of the divine nature: on the one hand, the author can speak of God’s wisdom as a distinct quality, something that he has, if you like, brought into being; but on the other hand, he waxes lyrical about the eternal nature of wisdom, existing with God before time’s commencement. A paradox indeed, but one that makes sense within a thoroughly Jewish framework. If we understand that the Jewish people grappled with the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Yahweh, then we may come to recognize just what we read here. The sage is declaring the divine origins of the wisdom he commends to his readers, rooting it in the sovereign God whom he worships. God may be above all, unbound by time, space, and our limited earthen categories, but he is also intimately involved in his creation, which the writer of Proverbs lyrically describes in terms of wisdom. He then goes on to speak of wisdom’s formative and superintending role in the creation of the world: “she” was there when God set the heavens in place (v.27); “she” was present at the marking of the seas and the foundations of the earth (v.29); and “she” celebrated in the formation of humanity itself (v.30). In short, God’s world and the wisdom with which he created it are deeply intertwined. I am not suggesting that we follow the pantheist’s god. Heaven forbid! But what is abundantly clear, from this and other passages (one only needs to go to the opening chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1 and 2), is that this world – God’s creation – has been formed out of, and is laced with, wisdom and moral order. The creation itself, in its own way, declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), since it is, if you like, an incarnation of divine knowledge and insight.

How does this kind of creation theology relate to what I am talking about? Several points flow from such a positive account of God’s world. Firstly, this is still God’s good world. The writer of Proverbs knew all about the pernicious presence of sin and folly. And yet, he didn’t consign creation to the rubbish heap; he elevated it to the status of a divinely-ordained medium through which God’s image might in some way be reflected. Secondly, the sage clearly intends to connect the wisdom of daily living with the wisdom displayed in creation. The latter gives life to the former, since if the world itself was created through wisdom, then a life characterised by such a quality can be no bad thing! It will by nature be creative, enriching – life-giving. Such a life will be both ordered and dynamic, framed by purpose but filled with enriching freedom. What is more, if we read such passages within the overall context of God’s redemptive covenant with his people, then it becomes possible to see a life of wisdom, with its grounding in creation theology, as the “highest expression of God’s purposes: to redeem creation and culture to himself through his transformed and transforming people” (Mark J. Boda). Wisdom, since it touches every part of this world (including God’s image-bearers) is a noble and laudable goal.

Lastly, the fact that this world has been lovingly created through the wisdom of the one true God means that humanity, as an inescapable part of his creation, is infused with that same wisdom. We ourselves (and by “we”, I mean all people) have been fashioned out of God’s wisdom, and we ourselves exhibit the power of that wisdom to create and to fashion, to think and to reason, to order and to frame. And because divine knowledge touches every part of God’s creation, we are by nature privy to it, whether Christian or not. As inhabitants of God’s creation, we embody – albeit it in corrupted form – his knowledge and truth. There is a deep relationship between God and his creation, a relationship that is made incarnate, if you like, in those who have been made in his image. By nature, we are able to comprehend something of God’s wisdom; by nature, we are able to positively respond to it; and by nature, we are able to recognize what is right and good, since we contain within us the seeds of God’s own truth.

A theology of creation means that even prior to the reception of the gospel, people are intrinsically able (to an extent, at least) to discern something of God’s truth. Whether Christian or not, all of God’s image-bearers are by nature carriers and vessels of divine wisdom. I don’t want to press this too far, but Proverbs itself gives us a warrant for believing that at some level, and because of our own origins, divine truth can resonate with all people. Let us return to Chapter 8. There, it speaks of kings and princes making judgments and rulings according to the dictates of wisdom (8:15-16). They reign, whether they know it or not, according to the divinely-ordained order that envelops God’s creation. These verses are deeply significant, since the anonymous kings and princes mentioned are obviously not members of God’s people; they do not necessarily believe in him. And yet, the author of Proverbs can speak of them reigning with the same wisdom that God used to bring his world into being. Thus, we see the all-embracing nature of divine knowledge and truth, by which all are touched, and to which all have access.

Manifold implications flow from this kind of theological construction. Aside from reinforcing a positive conception of God’s creation – which I attempted to outline in my last post in this series – we may start to see how our public witness can actually bear fruit amongst all people. The foundational chapters of Proverbs – especially Chapter 8 – strongly suggest that the wisely-ordered nature of God’s creation can resonate with, and is reflected by, all people. The wisdom and truth that inheres in this world is, in theory, open to people of all stripes. What one might call natural law, public wisdom or even general revelation can indeed transform the surrounding culture, for it is open to people prior to their reception of God’s special revelation in Christ and the gospel (I don’t want to create too-artificial a distinction between general revelation and special revelation, but it will do for my current purposes). And that means that we as God’s people, who are called to bring his truth to bear upon all arenas of life, can hope to see people persuaded by the very same wisdom which has brought them into being and sustains this world. It means that despite the marring effects of sin, which can numb the mind and deceive the heart, the truth that we follow and obey can have an enriching effect upon society-at-large. This is the kind of thing that goes beyond the church and beyond the faithful, for it is something that is creational in nature as it reaches out to all those it has created. Divine wisdom, as a quality of the Creator God, is not bound by culture or time; it is not even bound by Christianity (and therefore privy only to Christians). On some level, divine truth invites universal access.

So, when we defend the biblical conception of marriage (for example), we ought to be encouraged that God’s conception of marriage flows out of his wise ordering of the world and its relationships, and the truth claims that we make regarding it can indeed resonate with all people. When we argue for the coherency of sexual complimentarity inherent within marriage, we should be encouraged that this is not simply a Christian view of things, but a creational reality that transcends cultural and social mores. That, once more, is the nature of God’s wisdom. When we make truth claims about how to live, or about ethics, or even about the nature of truth itself, we should be persuaded by the fact that because we speak with people who have been fashioned in God’s image and created according to his wisdom, we offer something that in some measure can have epistemological currency and transformative power. It is the kind of truth that has public (as opposed to merely private, Christian) value. Of course, we should be humble about the effects of sin and human misdeeds, and not neglect the opposing fact that various philosophical and ethical frameworks, which people have constructed around themselves, are often deeply entrenched and difficult to shift. However, at the same time, we should also be uplifted by the fact that the divine knowledge that has brought all of us into existence (again, I go back Genesis 1 and 2) is the same “stuff” that allows us to reflect our Creator in our own lives (consciously or not) and to discern the good (consciously or not). It is a boon to our efforts to transform our world, because it acknowledges the potential influence of godly truth, beyond the church. God’s wisdom has brought this world into being; as we witness to his ways, we call his image-bearers back to it.

A final note. Complete wisdom, it must be said, is always to be found in the context of a covenantal relationship with God. Thus, whilst we may commend the ethical and moral implications of a Christian worldview to a waiting – and sometimes sceptical – audience (encouraged by its potential ability to persuade those who, by nature, possess an ability to discern the truth of God) this kind of public engagement alone is unable to actually save people. It may enrich and preserve the moral character of a given society; it may help to ameliorate some of the excesses of a sinful world; it may even persuade those outside the faith of the efficacy and integrity of Christian moral positions, bringing them several steps closer to the gospel. But it can never, by itself, help people to cross the existential and spiritual chasm that lies between God and man. That is God’s business; and only then, when such a chasm is crossed, will one possess true wisdom – the wisdom of God – in all his fullness.

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