“Moral evil is social and structural as well as personal; it comprises a vast historical and cultural matrix that includes traditions, old patterns of relationship and behavior, atmospheres of expectation, and social habits.”
Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
Not The Way Its Supposed To Be, pg. 191
This observation teaches that a unredeemed people who build a culture will institutionalize their particular rebellion against God into their cultural infrastructure with the result that not only are the individuals in the culture in revolt against God but also that the cultural superstructure is serving to reinforce that rebellion in the lives of the individuals. The consequence of this is that if there is a redeemed community living as aliens in and among an unredeemed culture that redeemed community will first have to work hard at recognizing that their home culture can indeed be fairly characterized as unredeemed and secondly they will have to become epistemologically self conscious as to how their unredeemed culture, in which they are saturated, and consequently which they are inclined to find altogether normal, is pushing them in a direction that is contrary to Christ.
All of this is only to recognize that all of us tend to reflect the culture in which we are part. I heartily confirm that regeneration and redemption ought to have a significant bearing on that but it is manifestly self-evident that it often doesn’t. In our contemporary setting part of the reason for this, I think, is that there is not enough work being done by Christians in examining how our cultural mold in which we dwell is shaping us in a non-Christian direction. I also think however that there is also not enough willingness on the part of rank and file Christians to take seriously the work that is done in teaching how the Church needs to be counter-cultural, given the reality that we are currently living in a post-Christian culture.
As we pursue this subject we should likewise reverse this scenario and suggest that among a people who are largely redeemed their will arise a largely redeemed culture that will, by the impact of the common grace, have the effect of putting socio-cultural brakes on their wickedness of the unredeemed that live in their midst to the point that the unredeemed will often accept for normal what is defined as normal due to the cultural infrastructure that is in place in a redeemed culture. This is to say that a unredeemed person living in a largely redeemed culture will likely not express their depravity as thoroughly as they would were that same unredeemed person living in a culture completely devoted to hating Christ.
Now some might object that this is an environmental understanding of the effects of sin. Nothing could be further from the truth since a totalistic environmental understanding of sin would suggest that there would be no way to break out of the cultural mold into which people are born. Quite to the contrary, because of the power of the Gospel, both individuals and whole people groups, quite contrary to their established cultures do turn from the aimless conduct received by tradition from their fathers and embrace Christ. What I am arguing here is not for a predestinarian cultural behaviorism, rather what I am seeking to recognize is that as God has made us to be social beings, social dynamics and the way those are constructed make a difference in the way that we think about and respond to everything. I argue this point with the hopes that we might understand that the Gospel has to impact not only individuals but also the macro cultural constructs that individuals build. In order for the Gospel to be successful it is not only the case that individuals must be saved but it is also the case that those individuals have to be saved with the kind of salvation that challenges the reality shaping institutions that comprise their culture since the reality shaping institutions are still molding saved individuals in a anti-Christ direction.
I think there can be little argument that the Church has done, at least by its own estimations, a bang up job of getting people saved in the last 100 years. From Finney to Moody to Sunday to Rodeheaver to Graham to McGavern to Hybels to Warren to Osteen there has been a whole lot of ‘saving’ going on. But despite hand over fist converts we live in what many people are characterizing as a post-Christian West. Now, in light of this, either what I am arguing above is true or salvation really means nothing.
There is something else that is connected with all this that I find interesting and it has to do with the noetic effects of sin. We often speak of the noetic effects of sin being more pronounced upon the unbeliever over against the believer. But let’s imagine a scenario where two people are living in the same largely unredeemed culture. Shelia is a product of her culture and epistemologically self conscious of her hatred for Christ. The Bible holds no threat for her since she rejects any authority it proclaims to have. Christina on the other hand is a Christian who likewise is largely a product of her culture and who claims to accept the authority of the Bible. Both have decided to have an abortion. Shelia, having an interest in ancient literature, reads the Scripture and says to herself, ‘this teaches that murder is wrong,’ but since this book has no authority I am going to get my abortion. There are no noetic effects of sin on her interpretation (though certainly there are noetic effects on her volition). Christina reads the Scripture and precisely because she holds it to be authoritative insists that it does not prohibit abortion. Clearly in this scenario the neotic effects of sin lie more heavily on the Christian then the non-Christian. Those Christians who accept the authority of Scripture may be more inclined, because of the noetic effects of sin — noetic effects that may be accounted for, in part, because of how they are being informed by the unredeemed culture they live in– to abuse the Scriptures then those who have no dog in the fight since they read Scripture without thinking it has any authority over them anyway.