Last week I attended the Mid-America Conference on Preaching sponsored by Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and Inter-city Baptist Church. Sharper Iron posted my summaries of the general sessions.
Over the next few days, I will be posting summaries of the workshop sessions that I attended.
Christians and Culture: Christ our Hope (Is There Something Missing in the Present Discussion of Culture?) – Sam Dawson
The greatest benefit of the MACP, in my opinion, is the excellent workshops, most of which are scholarly papers presented by faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. The first workshop I attended was by Sam Dawson. The following is a summary of the presentation.
Dr. Sam Dawson serves part-time on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in the field of Theology. Dr. Dawson has also taught in the Inter-City Baptist Bible Institute and is a regular workshop speaker at the Mid-America Conference on Preaching and the Wilds Expository Preaching Conference. Dr. Dawson earned the Bachelor of Science in Cinema (1973) and the Master of Arts in Cinema (1974), both from Bob Jones University. After starting a business in the metro Detroit area and becoming active in the Inter-City Baptist Church he began his seminary studies. Dr. Dawson earned two degrees from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Divinity degree (1988) and the Master of Theology degree (1992). Dr. Dawson later went on to earn the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Dr. Dawson and his wife, Carolyn, have been married since 1974. They have two children: Ben (b. 1984) and Marilyn (b. 1986). The Dawsons live in Allen Park and are actively involved in the ministry of Inter-City Baptist Church. Dr. Dawson continues to serve the Lord and to have a faithful testimony in the local business community.
Dr. Dawson is using John Frame’s perspective on culture in his recent book The Doctrine of the Christian Life (2008, R & P Publishing, 853-908) as his starting point. He will then share his own reflections as he emphasizes what he believes is missing in the present discussion on culture.
Frame begins by defining culture as “anything that human beings work at to achieve” (854) This includes their values. He narrows the discussion by distinguishing between creation and culture. Creation is what God makes; culture is what man makes.
He points to the “cultural mandate” (Gen 1.28). To Frame, this defines the purpose of life. Man is to procreate and rule the earth. Man should not abuse the environment.
Culture is what we do, but God intended us to do culture for his glory. Therefore culture is what human society is and what it should be. Dawson doesn’t think this additional definition is helpful. Culture is simply what man does, even if it is not for God’s glory.
Frame then connects his definition of culture to religion. Religion is the chief expression of value. Religion, therefore, governs culture. Everything we do in society reflects a belief system. Cultures are not religiously neutral; they are expressions of man’s highest value.
Because of the Fall, people make religions that are corrupt, and therefore cultures are corrupt. But Frame believes that some “good” still resides in cultures because of common grace. Furthermore, God’s special grace is at work in redeemed individuals in a culture, which also causes good in the culture. To Frame, a believer is still responsible to carry out the “cultural mandate” as it is reflected in the Great Commission. Believers, then are to “build a new Jerusalem” on this earth. We need to transform culture.
Frame then analyzes culture by using Niebuhr’s five models. He suggests that most people hold to a mixture of these models. “Christ Against Culture” argues that Christianity and culture are in opposition. Christians must reject culture and separate from it. Frame makes a distinction between culture and the world. The world is against God in totality, while culture can be influenced by common grace. Christ is not opposed to culture; he is opposed to the world.
“Christ of Culture” argues that Christ and the highest ideals and expressions of culture are in basic agreement. Christians should embrace the best of culture and acknowledge that, at least, those who have embraced the best ideals of culture are Christians, whether they called themselves Christians or not. This would describe the liberal Protestants of the 19th and 10th centuries.
“Christ above Culture” argues that there is good in culture, but it must be completed by Christ. This characterizes Roman Catholicism, which makes a distinction between nature and grace. Frame argues that we don’t just need a supplement, we need an entirely different way of working.
“Christ and Culture in Paradox” argues that Christ is sovereign over culture and the church, but he rules each differently. To some who accept this view, God has two sovereignties: one over the nations of the earth and one over the church.
“Christ, the Transformer of Culture” argues that Christians should seek to transform the bad elements of culture according to the standards of the Word of God. This is where Frame finds the most truth. Christians should seek to “Christianize” their culture however they can.
Frame then analyzes culture by looking at what others have said. Francs Schaeffer traces the history of thought from rationalism to irrationalism.
Os Guinness argued that culture took a turn for the worse in the 1960’s. It even rejected “borrowed” Christian values and slid into pessimistic humanism, pronouncing the death of God as a cultural fact.
David Wells chronicles how his hometown of Wenham, MA declined into a culture we call “modern,” a subjectivist or irrationalist culture based on human experience, not objective truth. This culture is an escape from reason and truth.
Kenneth Myers distinguishes between high, folk, and popular culture. He accuses the church for capitulating to the whore of modern culture.
Richard Pratt traces the history of culture under three chronologically successive wordlviews: Premodern, modern, and postmodern.
Cornelius Van Til never wrote directly about culture, but he wrote a lot about things that effect culture. He didn’t make a big deal about turning points in history. He knew of only one turning point, the Fall. History since that time has replayed itself over and over again. Van Til argues that all non-Christian thinkers from ancient Greece to the present were both rationalists and irrationalists at the same time. He departs from all the others in this list. History is not a movement from rationalism to irrationalism (contra Schafer), but a dance between them. When rationalism gets out of hand, irrationalism jumps in, and vice versa.
Thus, the problem is not found by tracing thought through history. The problem is sin. Culture is bad today, but probably not much worse or much better than Sodem, Gomorrah, etc.
Next, Frame asks, how should Christians interact with culture today? How should we be in the world, but not of the world? He deals with this on three subjects: how we interact with cultural elite, movies, and music. Dawson addresses only the first.
Through the mid 18th century, Christianity was the dominant force in Western culture. From 1750-1920, Christianity had significant influence, but it was not dominant. From 1920 on was a serious decline of Christian influence. From that point on, evangelicalism rejected the intellectual elite. 1925-1945 was a wasteland of evangelical participation in academics, arts, and sciences. in Post-WWII was an evangelical renaissance with Henry, Graham, Ockenga, Fuller, etc. Van Til critiques this attitude. He said that we should be positive about the intellect, but we should be aware of the effects of sin upon the life of the mind. He warned against academia. Because these “new evangelicals” were enamored by intellectual academia, many rejected inerrancy. From 1970 to the present there has been a constant effort of evangelicals to be involved in mainstream academics, arts, etc. Frame suggests that this has been quite successful. Evangelicals are influential in politics, have influence in academia, CCM has become attractive to secular investment, Graham has befriended U. S. Presidents, etc. yet many critics of evangelicals still view it as an “anti-intellectual cultural backwater” movement. They cannot escape the charge.
Dawson responds by saying that this is a major problem today. It is a challenge to hold doctrine and practice together consistently. Some emphasize practice over doctrine. “They are chickens with their heads cut off.” These people are diluted. They are pragmatic. On the other hand, some divorce their practice from their doctrine. They value the rigor of theoretical knowledge apart from practical application. “They’ve become too smart for their own good.” These people slip into heresy very easily. We must balance between these two extremes.
Dawson’s Reflections on Culture
He defines culture as what man does with the resources God gives him. What man does is what man values. Culture reflects values. God created man to build a culture for his glory. He was to work this out in six areas: spiritual, ethical, social, political, physical, and religious. However man rejected God, which marred the image of God man bears, and also marred the culture which man builds. But man still bears God’s image and thus sometimes, sporadically does relative good. So the culture man builds has some relatively good things in it. However, they are built on the foundation of man’s pride. This permeates all six ares of culture discussed previously.
The bottom line is that Van Til is right. Man is rational and irrational at the same time. Man rationally suppresses the truth of God, which makes him irrational. Thus the culture man has built in the secular world wherever man has built it, is irredeemable. God is not in the business of redeeming culture anyway. He redeems men and women for His glory. To these men and women, He has promised a Kingdom on earth over which Christ will reign. And they will serve Him gladly, in the functions in which He places them.
When Christ finally fulfills this promise, He will establish a culture on earth, which brings him glory. This will bring his plan full circle. A people called out for his name will collectively build a culture on this earth that brings glory and honor to Christ. Niebuhr’s categories are insufficient. It is Christ supernaturally and personally establishing a God-honoring culture on earth through redeemed people whom he has transformed. The OT prophets speak of this time when Christ will establish a God-honoring culture. This will permeate all six areas of culture.
This is the culture we long for and look forward to, when Jesus comes back. Our mission today is not to transform culture, but to make and mature disciples who are becoming more and more like Christ in the local Church so that they may carry out their God-given responsibilities now in the church and in the future Millennial Kingdom to glorify Christ. In His Kingdom, Christ will give His redeemed certain duties to help build a culture for His glory.