Last week Carl Trueman interacted with D.G. Hart’s new book on Calvinism: A History, and posted an article with a fair concern of the transformationalist ideals. Trueman writes,
Surely it is time to become realistic. It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies. It is time to look again at the New Testament's teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home."Many have written off Trueman's concerns as "R2k" scoffing at Christian efforts to affect culture. But the concern shouldn't be disregarded so quickly. Cannot transformational ideals pander to nothing more than middle class hobbies? Do we not run the danger of confusing the gospel agenda of Jesus with our own worldly one, the very problem of the Jews in John 6? I think these are fair concerns whatever side one takes on the issue. What's sad is that these debates seem to go on endlessly. The same old arguments are rehashed and the discussion appears to get more and more polarized.
What interests me is, stepping back from the daily blows of each side, to ask why this discussion has become so heated at this particular moment of time. The inquisitive thinker should pause and consider the timing of this kingdom discussion.
When things were calm and outwardly prosperous in the United States, and freedom of religion flourished, the perception was that real Christian progress was being made. This discussion largely remained in the academy and was not on the radar for common Christian folk. But as soon as everyone felt the pain of the economic downturn, combined with what has been an aggressive assault on religious liberties in the United States, Christians began to panic. It's at this particular juncture that the kingdom debate broke open, a time which also correlates with the election of President Obama to office.
Historically, the neo-Calvinist model seems to thrive in times of outward prosperity and in a free society where Christianity is accepted as the religious norm. Take this freedom and outward prosperity away, Christian institutions lose funding, the pile of para-church ministries begin to disintegrate, and the middle class hobbies are stripped away by legislation that seeks to undermine the “cosmic” project. Houston we have a problem!
In what has become a perfect storm in the US for Christians, neo-Calvinists now find themselves holding tightly to a particular model of Reformed social thought that is not working well in a culture that is becoming more and more hostile to Christian truth claims. Persecution appears to be coming for Christians in the United States. The perceived secularization of the United States is causing panic and Christian devotees to Fox News, for instance, often find themselves either in anger or denial of what is really happening to our “Christian nation.”
Now interject 2k writers who are challenging priorities in this struggle, and who dare to expose the fact that in the long trajectory of transformationalist thought there just hasn’t been all that much transforming (see Trueman’s article), you've just had a collision of catastrophic proportions. Now the rhetoric may not always be kind or helpful, but think of the struggle that now results when the following assertions are made:
"Maybe," says the 2k theologian, "the Great Commission of the church has been undervalued in this grand cosmic project. Maybe we need to look a bit deeper into our history, outside of Kuyper, to discern the social thought of other Reformed believers in other times and places who faced these struggles. Maybe the church as institution has become marginalized among the plethora of other Christian projects which has actually facilitated the losing of our saltiness in this world. Maybe we’re making such little influence in this world because many of these agendas have been too this worldly resulting in a lack of truly born again Christians who are brought under the power of the gospel preached. Maybe we've confused the kingdom of God with our earthly agenda."
Or, using the words of David Wells, “There have been too many instances of obnoxious empire building going on, too much in evangelicalism that is partisan and small, too much pandering to seekers, and too much adaptation of the Christian message until nothing remain…For many people, the word “evangelical” has become a synonym for what is trite, superficial, and money grubbing, a byword for what has gone wrong with Protestantism (Courage to Be Protestant, 19)."
Regardless of particular commitments, if the above assessments are accepted as true or even possible, then we should be willing to speak of the deficiencies in the neo-Calvinist model. Conversely, even if deficiencies of 2k thought are accepted as true, the complexity of now living in a post-Christian society should be recognized. Christian social thought has never been uniform throughout history due to differing economic and political circumstances. (As Carson states in his new article on the Kingdom, "One wonders what stances Kuyper would have adopted had he been born in China in 1940." Themelios 38.2, p201.) There is a reason we have a plethora of responses throughout history. There is also a reason Belgic Confession Article 36 has been through a series of revisions throughout history.
To be sure, Christians should pursue the cultural mandate and live their lives in a distinctively Christian way seeking to reform society as Christ's salt and light in thankfulness for his gospel of salvation. This is our duty as Christians; that never changes. But wrestling through how the church and the Christian is to relate to the culture when the culture is running at the end of a cycle of iniquity is no easy issue.
As believers, we've never experienced before a sweeping cultural paradigm shift that has resulted in a post-Christian setting. We are a generation living through this. It's not going to be so easy to work through. These will be ongoing struggles as we wrestle together with how to live in a kingdom of this world that has become beastial. But along the way, I pray that as we have these discussions, we don't tear ourselves apart and lose the very witness to this world that we claim to maintain. Part two forthcoming.