Recently Dr. Hart wrote on some disagreements between two kingdomists and cultural transformationalists. Here I enter into dialogue with what Dr. Hart wrote.
Recent interactions with seminarians have made me realize how popular the notion of cultural transformation is as the best understanding of the Reformed ministry. Whether called mercy ministry, urban missions, or word and deed, a wing of the Presbyterian world believes that the church is called to apply the gospel to all of society and culture as part of the Great Commission. Cultural transformation is essential to the church’s love of neighbors and evangelism. As one prominent Presbyterian pastor puts it, “To say that social concern could be done independently of evangelism is to cut mercy loose from kingdom endeavor. It must then wither. To say that evangelism can be done without also doing social concern is to forget that our goal is not individual ‘decisions,’ but the bringing of all life and creation under the lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God.”
I think I agree with Dr. Hart here that this view of cultural transformation is mentally challenged. One can not transform culture by passing out free meals or by building homes. That is NOT evangelism. If this is what cultural transformation amounted to I would be against it as well. Biblical cultural transformation comes in the context of and is a consequent of evangelism. It is not something that is done along side evangelism as if the two were only tangentially related. Cultural transformation starts with evangelism and once Christ is embraced it continues on to discipleship teaching the converted what the sanctified life looks like in every area of life. Disciples of Jesus are to be transformed by the renewing of their mind and once disciples are transformed then everything they touch and are involved in is transformed as well. Personal transformation is what leads to cultural transformation.
Perhaps an example will suffice. Barak Obama is genuinely converted to the Christ of the Bible. As a result of Obama being discipled from the Word of God, by the Church, he sees his previous support of abortion is an abomination before God. Obama repents and becomes an advocate of strong pro life policies in the Senate. Obama thus becomes part of cultural transformation.
So against the pastor that Dr. Hart quotes I would say that evangelism can and probably should be done apart from ‘social concern,’ but it can’t be done apart from discipleship and personal transformation. Where a tipping point is reached with personal transformation this leads to cultural transformation.
As an aside, I am all for mercy ministry but lets quit calling it ‘evangelism.’ The Churches I’ve pastored have helped more than there share of derelicts and will continue to do so but the consequent of that action has not been cultural transformation but more often then not co-dependency.
This has an obvious appeal and appears to move the church away from irrelevance to the front lines of social activism. I have long thought that Kuyperianism of this sort is far more popular than the two-kingdom view because it is uplifting and inspiring. It gives the timid the gumption to go out and get things done. By contrast, the two-kingdom view prompts introspection and uncertainty.
First we should say that the two kingdom view is a cultural transformation view. We can’t let Dr. Hart get away with suggesting that there are the cultural transformation types and then there are the two kingdom types as if two kingdom theology doesn’t lead to cultural transformation. The fact of the matter is that with the type of retreat of the church from cultural transformation that is advocated by the two kingdom types what results by consequence is a cultural transformation in a anti-Christ direction. If the church retreats from cultural transformation it is not as if it isn’t responsible for the cultural transformation in a wicked direction that follows. When the Church refuses to speak to cultural issues then the consequence is that each man does what is right in his own eyes when it comes to applying truth to culture. Two Kingdom theology is radically involved in cultural transformation in as much as by the retreat that it advocates allows a cultural vacuum to be created and filled by those with an agenda that is contrary to Christs.
Second, I share Dr. Hart’s cynicism about ‘getting things done.’ To often the Church wants to get things done for the sake of getting things done without thinking about what really is or is not being ‘done.’
Third, I can’t help but wonder why Dr. Hart says that the two kingdom view prompts introspection and uncertainty. Is this because advocates of two kingdom wonder if there view is really true? Is this because two kingdom advocates ask themselves if it really is the case that the Gospel can flourish in a culture that languishes?
But further reflection shows that the inspiration of such transformationalism may be as full of hope as Obama (and as vacuous). How exactly is a small wing of Protestantism going to transform New York City? At my home church in Glenside, Pa., we need a permit from the Virtuous Commonwealth just to remodel our auditorium. Even transforming an intersection in the Big Apple would require a herculean effort. (Can you really call it transformation if you need a permit?)
I am going to concentrate here on answering Dr. Hart’s question that is put in bold.
The way that a small wing of Protestantism is going to transform the whole world is by the power of the Holy Spirit causing the Lordship of Christ to be submitted to by converts as the Church teaches people to obey all things whatsoever Christ commanded. The way that a small wing of Protestantism is going to transform the whole world is the same way that a mustard seed is transformed into a tree. The way that a small wing of Protestantism is going to transform the whole world is the same way a little leaven transforms the whole loaf. The way that a small wing of Protestantism is going to transform the whole world is the same way that a small band of Christians transformed pagandom into Christendom. Granted New York City provides some serious obstacles but with God all things are possible.
The need for permits is a reality that transformationalists do not seem to consider thanks to what seems to me a naive view of culture and society in the West (at least). Our society is remarkably complex affair that owes to legal, economic, political, and church-state developments that transpired over two millennia.
So what? Transformationalists see culture as the outward manifestation of a people’s inward beliefs. Transformationalists thus understand if one desires to see culture change then the problem isn’t with two millennia of development but rather the problem is with people who are dead in trespasses and sins. Look, by Dr. Hart’s reasoning there is little hope for the Gospel to go forward in Muslim lands because Islamic society is a remarkably complex affair that owes to legal, economic, political, and mosque-state developments that transpired over many millennia.
Nobody doubts things are complex. By this reasoning we shouldn’t expect individual sanctification because individuals are remarkably complex having been influenced by family life, personal experience, sinful biases and assorted developments that have been reinforced by many yeas. If God can change one individual then why can’t he change many individuals? And if God can change many individuals then why is it hard to see that the changing of many individuals leads to cultural transformation?
So we are happy to grant that societies are complex affairs. But we also insist that their complexity is not beyond God’s ability to bring cultural transformation.
The legendary sociologist, Edward Shils, for instance, explained some of this complexity when he tried to define the basic components of civil society. The first is that society is distinct from the state. Second, it protects rights to personal property. And third it involves “a constellation of many autonomous economic unites and business firms acting independently of the state and competing with each other.” The virtue of a civil society is that it allows for the diversity of objectives pursued by individuals and institutions. So one could say that civil society allows churches to try to transform society. What civil society will not allow is the conflation of society and the state. This was the mistake of Communism and why it was always the Party’s job even to throw a party.
I know of no cultural transformationalists who desires to conflate the society and the State. In point of fact every cultural transformationalist I have ever read insists that the society and the state must be kept distinct. The same goes for conflating society and church.
Secondly, the Puritans had a doctrine called the ‘harmony of interests’ that allowed for both diversity of objectives pursued by individuals and institutions and for a homogeneous culture within which that diversity operates and functions. This is embraced by all cultural transformationalists I know and it is embraced because such an arrangement gives equal honor to the one and the many in the Trinitarian nature of God. For Pete’s sake, only a Unitarian cultural transformationalists would desire the conflating of society and state.
Thirdly Dr. Hart speaks about what civil societies will and won’t allow. What I would like to know is what standard is being used to judge a society as civil? You see referring to a society as civil presupposes some standard by which to measure civility. Even Dr. Hart’s measurement for a civil society presupposes the Christian faith. Without the christian faith impacting culture and society there is no way that we can ever get to ‘civil.’
Sometimes I think the rhetoric of transformationalism leads to a form of tyranny similar to Communism. Instead of conflating society and the state, the ideal of redeeming culture verges into conflating society and the church. If godless tyranny was a bad thing, wouldn’t godly tyranny also be?
Godly tyranny is an oxymoron. The Church should no more desire any kind of ecclesiocracy (Church ruling society) then it should desire two kingdom theology. Tyranny is by definition wicked.
Second, no transformationalist that I know of desires to conflate society and church. If (as one example) family life is redeemed that doesn’t mean that the family doesn’t still retain its own proper sphere in distinction from the Church. Similarly if any other aspect of a culture is redeemed it doesn’t mean that aspect of culture is now beholden to the Church. This represents either a profound misunderstanding or a gross caricature of the transformationalist view. If redemption comes to enough individuals who then in turn bring redemption thinking to the different realms they walk in the consequence is that the Kingdom is expanded not the Church. The societal spheres remain in place and serve as signs that say ‘no conflating allowed.’ Dr. Hart seems to think that successful cultural transformation would lead to a time when ‘all the colors bleed into one’ but once again such thinking is Unitarian and not Trinitarian.
Third, if conflation is something that Dr. Hart is genuinely concerned about then I think he should gird up his loins and look into the conflating that is presently happening in our culture between society and state. Oh, wait a minute… even if he did see that he could speak of it in the pulpit as being idolatry because that would violate two Kingdom theology.
Of course, the response is usually the fist-pounding one that quotes Kuyper and says “every square inch is Christ’s.” But the point of this remark is not entirely understood. Two kingdom folks agree that everything belongs to Christ, including civil society. In fact, every square inch is Christ’s even if the church is not transforming it. (Maybe the reason for the popularity of Tim Keller’s new book among the transformationalists is that lacking examples of the gospel’s transforming power they really do need reasons to believe that God exists and is in control.)
Here we see a confusion of categories that one often finds in two kingdom theology thinking. Two Kingdomists tend to excuse their lack of cultural concern with an appeal to the sovereignty of God as expressed by God’s hidden decrees. It is as if the reality of God’s hidden decrees excuses them from taking the commands of King Christ seriously.
Look, God existed and was in control at Auschwitz but that reality shouldn’t have caused the German Church to say, “Well, God is in control so we don’t need to seriously consider what cultural transformation requires of us in relation to this Jew question.” Is that the kind of mentality that Dr. Hart is advocating?
It remains true that regardless of what happens wherever and whenever that God is in control. This does not negate though our responsibility to do what King Jesus has told us to do. I can not excuse my lack of involvement in cultural transformation by saying ‘que sera sera, whatever will be will be.”
So let it be said by this cultural transformationalists that even if the mountains shall sink into the sea and even if all Hell breaks loose I am convinced that God is over every square inch. Let is also be said that just as God is over every square inch as Creator He also shall bring the redemption of King Jesus to every square inch.
possibly what the soft (as opposed to hard) Kuyperians have in mind by mercy ministry and “word and deed” is simply providing assistance for the poor and destitute. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t the word charity be preferable to social justice (a phrase that eerily unites Jim Skillen and Jim Wallis)? And granted, Reformed Christians may disagree about the nature and scope of diaconal work. But do we really need the mantra of redeeming the city to engage in simple and low-profile acts of charity?
I agree with this paragraph by Dr. Hart and a paragraph I deleted. The whole idea of ‘social justice’ is a Marxist idea to begin with and is beholden to that pool of thinking.