Don't Stop Believing 1 of 5: Communicate without Compromise
by Michael E. Wittmer
This week on Koinonia Michael Wittmer (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) will be posting every day on topics related to his new book, Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough and related to his previous book, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters To God. Learn more about him and read his blog at www.michaelwittmer.net - Andrew
Communicate without Compromise
The more we learn about the world the better we can interpret God’s Word. Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun enables us to properly interpret Psalm 93:1--“The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” In Copernicus’s day most Christians took this verse as proof that the earth is the stationary center of the universe. Even Martin Luther criticized Copernicus for allowing his newfangled view of the world to contradict Scripture. But thanks to Copernicus’s discovery, most Christians today rightly read Psalm 93:1 not as a scientific description of the earth’s immovability but as a poetic promise of God’s provision for his creation.
Or consider that many nineteenth century Americans used Paul’s commands that slaves should obey their masters as biblical support for slavery. But now, in part due to our country’s emphasis on democracy and human rights, no one outside of an occasional white supremacist uses the Bible to condone slavery.
Likewise, not that long ago and still every now and again various conservatives cite Genesis 1:28 in the King James Version to justify their right to “dominate” the rest of creation. Thankfully, society’s increasing concern for the environment leads most Christians to interpret God’s command to “have dominion” as his call to responsible stewardship rather than wasteful abuse of his world.
So we must read Scripture in one hand with a newspaper, textbook, or telescope in the other. The more we learn about God’s world the better we can understand God’s Word, and the more easily we can bring the two together. This is something we must do.
But it is a dangerous job. Every culture is fallen and every aspect of our world is flawed (including our interpretation of Scripture). The same culture that delivers fresh insights into the gospel may also blind us to key aspects of it. The very attempt to communicate the gospel to our culture may lead to compromise. It has always been this way.
The early church used the Greek language to write their New Testament and they used Greek terms, such as logos, ousia, and hypostasis, to better understand the person of Jesus and the persons of the Trinity. But this immersion in Greek thought came at a steep price—sometimes the early church sounded more Platonic than Christian. They often misconstrued God as a merely transcendent being—an immutable, impassible force who is unable to enjoy genuine relationships with his creatures. They misunderstood what it means to be human, often implying that we are essentially souls trapped inside bodies until death liberates us from this decaying world and our spirits fly to our true home above the sky.
Likewise, the medieval church incorporated Aristotle to make the faith intelligible in its day. But just as the early church sometimes reduced God to the impassible “Good” of Plato or the ultra transcendent “One” of Plotinus, so Aquinas’s God sometimes seemed too similar to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.
The modern church, which emphasized the autonomy of each person, empowered Martin Luther to trust his interpretation of Scripture and stand up to a corrupt church and emperor. But modernity also gave rise to liberalism—by which autonomous readers of Scripture scoff at its supernatural parts, and the small group—in which autonomous readers share their views on a biblical text, with the understanding that no interpretation—no matter how implausible—will be considered wrong.
Here is my question: if in every age the church has benefited and suffered from its engagement with culture, should we expect that our postmodern age is any different? Our postmodern context rightly reminds us of the biblical concern for humility, social justice, and care for the poor. But postmodern Christians can be so humble that they mumble, and they can be so focused on social ethics that they begin to use “following Jesus” as a substitute for believing in him.
A few years ago I attended an Emergent church conference, where I was moved by the participants’ passionate zeal for social justice. I resonated with their belief that the gospel must make a difference in our world here and now. But one thing bothered me. As I asked one of the presenters at the end of conference, “I have heard many fine appeals this week for fighting poverty, racism, and every form of social injustice. But I haven’t heard anything that isn’t already expressed in our postmodern culture. Do we believe anything that would offend a good postmodern person?”
My friend told me that we believe in a metanarrative, which a typical postmodern would not accept. I replied that I was glad to hear it, though I doubted that some of the other presenters that week felt the same way.
Here is the point: the church always gains insights into Scripture from its surrounding culture. The postmodern world is no exception. But the church has always been captured, at least in part, by its surrounding culture. Our postmodern context is no exception.
So I urge all of us to become more self-aware. Every one of us reads Scripture through some cultural lens—conservatives as well as liberals interpret Scripture from a specific cultural perspective. Since every culture is fallen, we must ask ourselves how long it has been since we read Scripture in a way that convicted our cultural viewpoint. Are our views of truth, Scripture, salvation, the atonement, other religions, homosexuality, and hell grounded in the Word, or do they merely parrot the prevailing wisdom of our cultural context?
Agreement with our culture does not mean we are wrong, but we should be alarmed if we only ever see in Scripture what a conservative Republican or postmodern liberal would expect to find there. C.S. Lewis reminds us to remember the “resistant material.” Find that part of the gospel that rubs your culture the wrong way, and then preach that part. If we only teach the aspects of Scripture that our culture already accepts, then we are merely being redundant. We have become compromisers rather than communicators of the transcendent Word of God.
Michael Wittmer is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
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