Word over Culture

It has been a while since I last posted and wanted to get back to doing it. So without too much discussion here is an excerpt from the book The Christian Faith by Michael Horton on the importance of God’s word being our authority.

There is no such thing as culture, reason, tradition, or experience in the abstract. There are only cultures, reasoners, traditions, and people who experience reality. We cannot help but come to Scripture with these resources, but they are not neutral. We come either as covenant servants or as would-be masters. To the extent that we are able, we must make our tacit assumptions explicit. This is in part what it is intended in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This can only be done if we acknowledge a normative authority standing above our tacit assumptions and recognized convictions drawn from our cultural conditioning.

No more than reason, experience, or tradition is culture itself to be viewed as inherently opposed to faith. Rather, it is our sinful condition that causes us to use these gifts as weapons against the sovereign God who gave them. God speaks providentially in his common grace through reason, experience, tradition, and culture, but he has only spoken miraculously and redemptively in his Word (Heb 1:1). To say that culture, reason, tradition, and experience are subordinate to Scripture is simply to assert that human beings are subordinate to God. A dialogue with culture may yield important formal agreements on universal human rights, stewardship of creation, and other dictates of the moral law inscribed on the human conscience. However, no more than reason, experience, or tradition does culture possess any inherent possibilities of discovering God’s saving grace. On this point, Barth was correct to warn against turning culture into a source of gracious revelation alongside the Word of God.

Descartes and Locke thought we should dispenses with all external authorities, presuppositions, and inherited assumptions in order to arrive at incorrigible truths. However, this is a pretense-as impossible as it is unhelpful. Therefore, the popular assumption that people become Christians (or anything else) simply as an individual act of immediate intuition, unbiased investigation of the facts, or inner experience is more evidently modern than biblical. In the covenant of grace, God promises, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your offspring after you” (Ge 17:7).

God’s mighty acts, celebrated in the great feasts and defined in the doctrines and commands of Torah, are to be “on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Dt 6:6-7). From circumcision to burial, each Israelite was shaped by the covenant. It was their environment, not simply a set of doctrines and ethical norms to which they yielded formal assent. It was not something that they knew about as detached observers, but a form of life that they indwelled, from which they interpreted all of reality. Israel’s creed-the Shema (Dt 6:4-5)- was the summary of a whole network of narratives, practices, and texts they had absorbed into their bloodstream.

In its New Testament administration, this covenant of grace followed the same course. The narrative generates the doctrines and practices, evoking thanksgiving that then fuels discipleship. All of this is done in community. Even outsiders become insiders by hearing the same gospel, being baptized along with their household (Ac 16:15, 31-34), sharing in the Supper, being catechized in the same doctrine, and being shaped by a common fellowship of saints in local and broader assemblies. The covenant is the “form of life” or cultural-linguistic context that shapes Christian faith, practice, experience, witness, and service in the world. Yet even this ecclesial culture is corrupted by our sinful prejudices, errors, and practices. The covenant community itself remains simultaneously justified and sinful and must therefore always be transformed through the renewal of its mind of Scripture (Ro 12:2). This Word always stands above the world and church because it is the voice of the Father; it alone is able to save us from lords that cannot liberate because its content is Christ; it always establishes its own relevance and creates its own form of life because its perlocutionary effect is produced within us by the Spirit.

When tradition and culture are given authoritative roles alongside Scripture, the church and the world are not able to be judged or redeemed by the voice of a stranger. In fact, the church easily becomes indistinguishable from the world instead of a witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit. The church cannot serve two masters. While God’s general revelation may be evident in culture, it is only his special revelation that creates the church and keeps it from its constant tendency to be reabsorbed into this passing evil age. Because of God’s common grace, no culture is entirely devoid of any sense of truth, justice, and beauty. Because of our common curse, no time, place, cultural movement, or civilization is capable of restoring paradise. There is indeed general revelation, which allows us to work with our unbelieving neighbors toward greater justice, charity, stewardship, and beauty in the world, but we must never forget that, apart from the gospel, this general revelation is always distorted by our ungodly hearts. Therefore, every natural theology will always evolve into a form of idolatry. The church is thus not a facilitator of a conversation between the gospel and culture, as if they were two sources of a single revelation. Rather, it is that part of the world that lives-if it will live at all-by hearing God’s announcement and binding address.

 

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2011. Print. Pages 202-204.

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