Christian Witness

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.

Our Engagement With The World: Is It Necessary?

I have been thinking recently about the way in which Christians are to be salt and light in the world. Some would argue that our only task is to proclaim the gospel to people, telling them of the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ. All other concerns are, at the very least, a distant second (if they are considered legitimate at all). Those other concerns all relate to our wider engagement with the world, and may include such things as ministry to the poor, political lobbying, taking part in public discourse at whatever level, apologetics, and so forth. Christians who adopt a narrow view of how the church should expend its spiritual and physical energy suggest that all is needed is evangelism. The other forms of engagement I have just listed can only become a pernicious distraction.

There is, however, another school of thought, which argues that a broader approach is required. Without diminishing the importance or centrality of evangelism, such Christians also believe that wider engagement with the world is both needed and theologically justified. I side with this stream, which I will endeavour to explain. I think there is good reason, both biblical and theological, to think that God calls us to more than just the explicit proclamation of the gospel. Now, I don’t want people to get me wrong; I think that evangelism is a vital, essential – and altogether neglected – part of the church’s mandate and spiritual responsibility. The good news is our raison d’être, the message that has saved us, and has provided others with the opportunity to escape condemnation and alienation from God and enjoy his redemptive grace. However, to suggest this is all we ought to do as Christians would be a gross limitation of our responsibility. Hopefully, as I elucidate my reasons, they will provide some clarity of thought for those who are still wrestling with the exact nature and extent of Christian witness. My exploration of this particular topic will cover several areas, including the need for cultural engagement and challenge, the legitimacy of Christian political and social action, and the role of apologetics in preparing the ground for evangelistic proclamation. As this is such an expansive issue, I will serialize this post so as not to overwhelm (or bore!) you all. So stay tuned.

What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?

In a previous post, I spoke about a recent VCAT decision, which ruled against a Christian campsite and for a gay organisation. One of the main issues that I detected was the presiding judge’s comments that homosexuality is a fundamental part of a person’s being. This clearly runs counter to what Christians believe, but I did not give any detailed exposition of scripture to support that position. I mean, is it indeed true that the Bible forbids homosexual practice? I argue that those verses which speak about homosexuality do indeed prohibit it. But even if that is the case, is it possible to conceive of a coherent, integrated biblical perspective on human sexuality – into which any discussion of homosexuality specifically can be placed – rather than quoting de-contextualized bits of scripture to try and quash debate? That is what I aim to do in this post, and offer a theological statement that supports the political hue of the previous entry. Some may baulk at yet another essay that offers an interpretation of the biblical witness regarding homosexuality. However, if I am going to critique a judge’s position on the status of homosexuality, then I should be able to provide a theological warrant.

Let me therefore offer some remarks on the biblical witness, and why it is that Christians (at least those who consider the Bible to reliably convey the wisdom of God) take such a consistent stand against homosexuality. It should be said from the outset that homosexuality is not mentioned all that much throughout the Bible. There are some references to homosexual rape in Genesis and Judges, some Levitical laws that speak of male homosexuality, and a number of scattered references to the phenomenon in the New Testament. Now, space does not permit a full exposition of the relevant passages, so I will focus on just one: Romans 1:26-27. This is perhaps the most widely cited passage of Scripture whenever Christians offer a view on homosexuality, precisely because it sets homosexuality within an explicitly theological context. The condemnation of homosexuality that is found in Romans needs to be seen in this wider context, if the church is going to offer anything more than a proof-texted, piece-meal caricature of God’s ordering of sexual relationships. It is also important at this point in time, since the church’s view of human sexual relationships has been consistently challenged by an increasingly hostile culture.

The Apostle Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans, opens his letter by surveying – with broad brush strokes – the pervasive corruption and sinfulness of the human race. In order to point to the supra-historical nature of this predicament (in other words, the fact that this is a problem that has afflicted all of humanity throughout history), Paul sets his polemic within a creational context, hooking it into the Genesis narrative. By that, I mean Paul deliberately echoes Genesis 1-3, which speaks of God’s creation and man’s fall when offering up a theological explanation for the present sinfulness of humanity. His reference to God as creator in Rom. 1:19-20 is one such indicator. Similarly, his observation that man, though knowing God, committed the primal sin of idolatry and fell into darkness, is no doubt an allusive echo of the fall of the first man (Gen. 3). It seems that Paul is painting man’s present corruption as a kind of recapitulation of the rebellion of the first man. Of course, he will draw the curtain back in Romans 5:12, where he finally states plainly that all who are under sin are, if you like, “children” of Adam. But that is another story.

In any case, Paul begins to outline the pervasively disordered nature of humanity throughout Romans 1:24-32. Having given them up to their own sin, God allows humanity to go its own way. And that way is one of disorder and the frustration of God’s creative intent and design. This is where Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality finds its proper home. He does not use it as an example of human corruption because it is a particularly pernicious act. He does not use because of special hang-ups about sexuality. Instead, Paul observes homosexuality as an especially obvious manifestation of the disordered nature of humanity. We must always bear in mind that Paul’s opening gambit in Romans is hooked into the Genesis narrative. We should also bear in mind that one of the foundational aspects of that foundational narrative is the union between male and female as the proper expression of human sexual relationships (see Gen. 2:23-25); it is this sexual complimentarity that is key. For Paul, then, homosexual practice is a clear reflection of the fallen state of man, since it so blatantly goes against God’s created order. That order is outlined in the first few chapters of Genesis, and Paul uses that narrative to offer a structured, theological explanation for the general presence of human sin, and the particular presence of homosexuality.

It is thus that the Genesis narrative forms a crucial interpretive framework for Paul’s thought. It is not the case that he is simply castigating the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors. Nor is it the case that he is criticizing only one type of homosexual practice – namely, pederasty (of course, the fact that he also condemns female homosexuality tells against this argument). Rather, it is clear that Paul sets his polemic in a wider, creational context, arguing quite strongly that homosexuality – of all kinds – is to be seen as a clear violation of the divinely-ordained boundaries that have been established in terms of human sexual relationships. If I may refer to my previous post briefly, it ought to be clear why any Christian, provided they consider the Bible a reliable reflection of God’s wisdom, would reject the ostensibly normative status our society has seen fit to bestow upon homosexual identity and practice. Indeed, based upon this all-too-brief exposition of a relevant biblical passage, it should be abundantly clear why the Christian Brethren campsite rejected a request from a gay organization to use its facilities.

One final word: this post is not meant to make it even more difficult for those struggling with homosexual feelings and thoughts. We live in a time of sexual confusion, and I can only shake my head in sorrow and dismay when I think of so many people who are caught up in it. With that in mind, it is important to make a distinction between orientation and behaviour. Though both are products or reflections of humanity’s fallenness, it is the practice of the latter and the celebration of the former that are sinful. A young man struggling with homosexual thoughts should not see himself as a lone sinner who has been singled out for special condemnation by the Bible. But what is clear is the biblical witness in regards to homosexual practice. This can never be a point of compromise, even as we lay our lives down to love those who struggle in this area.

The Beginning

This is the very first entry of my new blog site, and I commence it with not a little trepidation. However, this is one way that I can fulfil my vocation as a public Christian witness and as someone who is able to engage with current ideas and prevailing issues. By that, I mean offering a Christian perspective in the public square and being a disciple who is able to bring every arena of life – both private and public (though the distinction between those two realms is often blurred) – under the lordship of Christ and the wisdom of Scripture. It’s a challenging ask, but I do remember someone saying that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. (Now, if only I could recall who that was…)

In any case, here are my thoughts on a range of topics theological, cultural, political, ethical, and so on. The exact remit of this blog is quite expansive, so it may be difficult to discern any kind of coherent theme. But if it is true that every area of life ought to be shaped by the wisdom of God, then it seems to me that his wisdom generally, and Scripture in particular, can speak to the issues that confront us all. So, with that in mind, I present my take on today’s world, seen through the lens of the biblical witness.