Monday, October 26, 2015

Fundamentals of Christian Culture and Education - A Very Useful Overview

I was delighted to see this very helpful and simple breakdown of how Christian truth interacts with the world. The way that Christians see the relationship of a Christian to things that are not strictly Christian, such as culture, arts, education, politics, law, society, etc., has a tremendous effect on how we display Christ to others and interact. And here is a magnificent tool to quickly and simply figure out what that means for you, your kids, and your church. If you look over the following outline, you will see that the category you fall into has a tremendous influence upon whether you participate in the culture of your community or focus on establishing a separate, Christian culture in a private circle of fellow Christians. It affects the way you act when you engage each sphere of life mentioned above, and also how you think those spheres of life ought to look. In other words, it affects both how you treat people and the kind of community you try to persuade those people to build.

In addition to the short summaries below, Justin Taylor has (once again) posted a brilliantly organized outline and breakdown of these ideas drawn from a lecture by Bruce Ashford. If you have time, you should read Taylor's whole post (which incorporates a chart and notes created by others from the lecture; the outline below is from Taylor's post). For the best impact, you can listen to the audio from Ashford's lecture. But Taylor's compilation is enough to ground anyone so you can start thinking through how this affects your approach to homeschooling, or public or private education, or Bible studies, or church community.

Ashford surveys five competing visions of the relationships between “grace” (God’s saving works and word) and “nature” (not only the created order but also the cultural order). Ashford identifies the following relationships with application toward education:
  1. Grace above nature (“bottom-floor education”). Often associated with manualist Thomists. God’s gracious salvation is something that adds to, and fulfills, the natural realm.
  2. Grace against nature (“a plague on the educational house”). Often associated with certain Anabaptists and Pietists. The Fall corrupted the natural world ontologically in such a manner that God’s salvation causes Christians to withdraw from the world and live a Christian life separate from it.
  3. Grace in tension with nature (“pastors and educators as dual ministers of God”). Associated with Luther and some Reformed evangelicals. The natural realm and the realm of grace each have their own integrity, existing alongside of one another.
  4. Nature without grace (“a naked public quad”). Atheistic view.
  5. Grace renews or restores nature (“an educational preview of a coming kingdom”). Associated with Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and the best way to describe the views of Irenaeus and Augustine. Sin does not have the power to corrupt the natural realm structurally. Instead, it corrupts the natural realm directionally. God’s still-good-structurally creation is misdirected toward false gods and idols. When Christians receive God’s grace in salvation, they are liberated from their idolatry, liberated to shape their cultural activities toward Christ rather than toward false gods and idols. Their cultural activity is redirective.
Ashford explains that all of the options—sans number four (nature without grace)—are advocated by various Christian traditions.
He goes on to argues for the fifth view (grace renews nature).
[It is important to note that various Christian traditions and teachers have argued for several of these views. But I believe Ashford is correct that the fifth view is the ideal Christian mission. It pursues a redemptive and transformational impact on the natural world and human culture through engaging it with the message of the Gospel and a life that demonstrates the superior benefit and goodness of embracing God's design. -Anthony]
Fifth View...
After the fall, the world remains structurally good but directionally bad. . . . The world the way it is ordered remains good. The fact that we have sun and moon and stars and dry land and water and human beings and animals— that’s good. And the fact that we have a certain cultural order is also good. Things like the arts and the sciences and politics and economics. . . . All of these sorts of things we do in this realm remain good in their what-ness. The fact that they exist is good.
These creational and cultural things are not corrupted ontologically; we don’t have to separate from them. But they are bad directionally. Because sin is essentially a redirecting of the heart away from God . . . and because it is religiously rooted and located in the heart, it radiates outward into everything we do. And so we continue to be cultural beings and social beings, but all of our social and cultural doings are corrupted by sin and idolatry. . . .
Grace and nature belong together . . . Christ Jesus’ redemption should transform us in the entirety of our being, and as it redirects our heart from idols toward the one, true living God, it should then change the way we operate in culture. . . . His lordship is as wide creation, and therefore it is as wide as our cultural eyes. . . . Our mission, therefore, the Christian mission is as wide as the entirety of our cultural and social lives, involving both our words and our deeds and our teaching and learning.
Ashford goes on to suggest three questions that should be asked (and answered) when we find ourselves in any sphere of culture:
  1. What is God’s creational design for this realm of culture?
  2. How has it been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry?
  3. In what ways can I help bring redirection to this realm by shaping my activities in light of Christ’s Lordship rather than in submission to idols?
That ends my excerpt from Taylor's post. One reason I agree with Ashford on embracing the fifth view is that this view looks at the natural world and human culture as things flawed by the Fall: polluted and misshapen, but not utterly destroyed or beyond value. The same sort of warping and tainting has happened to our hearts (desires and affections) and our minds (beliefs and ideas) due to sin. If the impact of the Holy Spirit within our hearts and minds redeems us gradually from that corruption, then why shouldn't the impact of the Gospel and Christians in both culture and the natural world have a similar effect? On this view, Christians have the privilege when they interact with culture of showing people what a renewed mind and heart look like in work, art, music, writing, friendship, justice, and works of mercy. We give tangible and visible demonstrations of the kind of world God is preparing for those who embrace Him. That is the essence of being an ambassador for Christ: inviting people to see the goodness and worth of the One who sent you.

However, there is a danger in thinking too comfortably and favorably of the natural world and human culture, or expecting too much from the process of restoration and redemption, and the fifth view takes this into account. We can have a transformational and redemptive influence on culture and the world, but we must still be alert to the fact that they will be flawed and, in many ways, in tension and conflict with the Gospel and Christian truth. They are not going to become harmonious with Christianity on this side of heaven; they groan with longing to be set free from sin and decay, and it will only happen at long last when Christ returns. (Rom. 8:19-23). The first view Ashford charts out can easily slip into an actual practice of the fourth view (forgetting that the culture and nature are flawed and corrupted at all, and embracing them as wholly good); the first view tends to treat the natural world and the sciences, arts, and non-religious studies as if they are not tainted or corrupted by sin, but are simply naturally the way God made them. So, for instance, studying geology is simply studying the way God made the earth; there is little or no acknowledgement that the corruption of sin affects our thinking about geology or the conclusions we draw from it. On this view, we have to take the corruption of sin and how it affects our beliefs, desires, and understanding into account when we study the Bible or Christian doctrine, but not when we study Plato or Marx or Jane Austen or the periodic table. Ashford calls this the two-level approach: God's supernatural work of restoration and sanctification is not needed on the bottom floor of non-religious work and study, but is always needed on the top floor of Christian thinking and preaching and Bible study.

The third view does something similar, in that it divides Christian scholarship and non-religious studies into two separate, side by side spheres of life. One of the things that attract people to this view is the appearance that non-Christians and Christians alike use the same intellectual tools in secular fields like mathematics, science, and architecture. They believe that what we call general or natural revelation (what God has revealed to all people through nature, without Scripture or faith) and common grace (the blessings and gifts God has given to everyone through nature, regardless of faith, like the ability to think and the ability to use moral reasoning) are completely sufficient for doing all the non-religious work and study in these secular fields. There is no "Christian" math and secular math, for instance. But this view fails to recognize the many ways a Christian mind and Spirit-filled heart transform what we do in mathematics, science, or architecture: the purpose of our work and the methods we use to complete it may be drastically different for a Christian with a redeemed mind.

An atheist may use science to try to prove his belief that there is no God; a Christian can use science to prove that the existence of God is far more likely and plausible than the atheist's belief in a universe made out of nothing but mindless material. An agnostic philosophy professor may spend her whole career teaching students to compare various systems of belief and ideas without ever really giving them an ultimate answer - or finding one herself. A Christian philosophy professor can help students discover how the ideas of philosophy and the greatest thinkers ultimately point the way back to the God who Himself defines reason and logic, revealing how Aristotle or Locke deduced things about nature and humanity that confirm what God reveals of Himself in the Bible. Likewise, the third view often overlooks how the corruption of sin in the mind and heart lead non-Christians away from truth, blinding them to what God reveals of Himself even in philosophy or art. The Christian still uses general revelation and common grace, just like the non-Christian, but the redeemed knowledge and biblical understanding of the Christian allows her to see further and deeper into the meaning of things and connect them to their ultimate, God-intended beauty and perfection. They both start with the same tools, but the Christian is more informed about how and why to use them.

Finally, the two-level approach (first view) and side-by-side approach (third view) can also lead into an inconsistent, unstable dual life where the Christian thinks different rules apply in "Christian" things than in "secular" things. This can become a practice of being "Christian" when at church and in Christian circles, but doing work or politics as if the rules that apply to them are simply the rules the world uses: doing things in the secular world by secular rules. The danger is that we cease to be any different from the world in how we act, and in fact begin to act inconsistent with Christian character and virtue when we're at the office or in the classroom. These same concerns are addressed in H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, which I first encountered 15 years ago. I summarize in the next post how Niebuhr compared each of these problems, because his insights are very similar to Ashford's categories yet go much deeper and add more definition. That post also addresses the problems and weaknesses of the second view Ashford described, Grace Against Nature.

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