Last week I began a series that seeks to answer the question of how important one’s philosophy of culture and worship is in relation to ecclesiastical cooperation. While most “gospel-centered” authors today would argue that philosophy of worship and culture should not affect cooperation, I am arguing that they are central. In other words, I am suggesting that a conservative philosophy of Christianity is centrally important.
So what, then, is conservative Christianity? I am not going to be able to do justice to an explanation in this short amount of time; I’d encourage you to read A Conservative Christian Declaration, the short book several of us wrote last year to articulate a conservative philosophy. But allow me to offer a brief explanation and case for conservative Christianity. At its essence, a conservative believes the best way to be biblically Christian is to preserve certain ideas and ways of behavior. The opposite to “conservative” is “progressive,” or we often use the term “liberal.” A progressive is one who believes that the best way to be biblically Christian is to reshape certain ideas or behavior into newer, more relevant forms. Essentially, there are two pillars that hold up the house of conservatism. I will tackle one of those pillars this week and one next week.
Belief in Transcendent Absolute Principles
The first pillar of conservative Christianity is affirmation of transcendent, absolute principles, which are declared as such by the sovereign will of the self-existent Creator. These principles govern all creation and reveal its meaning and value. They are revealed to us in creation, in our consciences, and mostly perfectly in the written Word of God.
Generally speaking, these transcendent principles can be grouped into three categories: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Now, again, most evangelical Christians would readily affirm the absolute nature of truth and goodness, and they may rightly be called “conservative” in these realms. Yet when it comes to beauty, most evangelicals and an increasing number of fundamentalists deny any universals. Of course, aesthetic judgments play a significant role in one’s philosophy of culture and worship. This is why a congregation otherwise conservative theologically and morally can espouse a quite progressive philosophy of culture and worship.
In other words, by definition conservative Christianity is dependent upon a commitment to transcendent principles of truth, goodness, and beauty as expressed by the Bible and creation.
God as the source. Belief in transcendent principles is rooted in a conviction that God is the source, sustainer, and end of all things. The Bible clearly proclaims that God is self-existent and self-sustaining, and all things come from him (Rom. 11:36). Everything that is true is so because God is True. Everything that is good is so because God is good. And everything that is beautiful is so because God is beautiful. There are no such things as brute facts apart from God; they are facts because God determined them to be so. There are no such things as moral standards that are merely conceived out of convention apart from God; actions are moral or immoral because God says they are. And in the same way, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; something is beautiful because God has determined it to be.
With this in mind, Christians as image-bearers of God must be committed to thinking God’s thoughts after him, to behaving in certain ways that conform to God’s moral will, and to loving those things that God calls lovely. Conservative Christians are therefore concerned with orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.
Scripture as the expression. There is one primary reason that I think it is so difficult for those who otherwise affirm absolute truth and goodness to believe also in absolute beauty: most Christians today want to be biblical, but they believe that the Bible is only a collection of truth statements and moral standards. The Bible does not talk about culture, or art, or music, they believe, and so to say anything dogmatic about these things is to go beyond Scripture.
Yet this perspective, the conservative Christian believes, is an anemic understanding of the nature of truth and how truth is presented in the Word of God. In its most basic definition, a statement is true if it corresponds to reality. Certainly the truth we wish to preserve—the truth of which the Church is the pillar and support (1 Tim 3:15)—has been revealed to us through the written Word of God. Everything contained within God’s Word corresponds rightly with reality, and it is our responsibility to pass that truth on to future generations (Acts 20:27). What we find there is truth about God, man, sin, salvation, the world, and so much more. Therefore, the truth we wish to preserve can be no less than doctrinal. But what we have been given through Scripture, and what we are charged with preserving, is more than brute theological facts compiled in abstract statements. Truth is no less than facts in statements to be sure, but it is more.
I am convinced of this primarily because I believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not come to us as a collection of propositional statements or a systematic theology. As Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “The Bible is more than divine data.”1 Instead, God’s revelation of truth comes to us in various aesthetic forms such as “narratives, proverbs, poems, hymns, and oratory whose artistic tools include allegory, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and irony.”2
These forms provide a way of communicating God’s truth that would be impossible with systematic statements of fact alone. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms (to the exclusion of others) to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented. Clyde S. Kilby observes, “The Bible comes to us in an artistic form which is often sublime, rather than as a document of practical, expository prose, strict in outline like a textbook.”3 He asserts that these aesthetic forms are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth: “We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting.’ Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.”4
To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. Vanhoozer articulates this well:
It has been said . . . that poetry is “the best words put in the best order.” Similarly, because we are dealing with the Bible as God’s word, we have good reason to believe that the biblical words are the right words in the right order.5
Most evangelicals, however, view the Bible—and by extension truth—as merely propositional. To most, whatever aesthetic aspects are present in Scripture are incidental at best and for many a distraction. Truth is simply something to believe and perhaps get excited about.
But there is a reason the Bible calls God a “king” rather than simply asserting the doctrinal fact of his rulership. There is a reason the Bible calls God a shepherd, fortress, father, husband, and potter rather than simply stating the ideas underlying these metaphors. These images of God paint a picture that goes far beyond mere doctrinal accuracy. They communicate something that could not be expressed in mere prose. They shape our imagination of who God is, both expressing and shaping right affections for God, which are central to Christianity.
The point is that the Bible itself uses forms of beauty to express God’s truth and moral standards in a manner that accurately shapes the way in which people perceive the truth. Most true Christians, such as the so-called conservative evangelicals, desire to preserve God’s truth and moral standards as expressly stated in the Word of God. Where conservative Christianity goes a step further is to also commit to preserving the way in which the Bible expresses truth and moral standards—in other words, conservative Christians seek to preserve biblical truth, biblical goodness, and biblical beauty. Conservative Christians do not consider the aesthetic aspects of Scripture as merely decorative or simply cultural contextualizations; rather, the aesthetic forms of Scripture are just as inspired and just as authoritative as the theological ideas contained therein. We are committed to preserving not just intellectual facts, but “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Faith is more than facts; faith is right facts combined with the affection of trust; faith is right facts felt rightly. How do conservative Christians propose to do preserve the way the Bible has expressed God’s truth? This leads to the second pillar of conservative Christianity, which I will address next week.
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5. [↩]
- James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44. [↩]
- Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-varsity Press, 1961), 19. [↩]
- Ibid., 21. [↩]
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100. Vanhoozer’s opinion here is clearly rhetorical overstatement; neither he nor I would disparage the value of systematic theology. Yet the point is clear: systematic theology alone cannot fully encapsulate Christian truth. [↩]