Tuesday, February 28, 2006

God's Vision for the City

I admit, I'm being a bit facetious with the title of this post. But since 99% of what's written about "The City" is from a transformationist (and I would argue, postmillennial) perspective, I just couldn't resist the irony....

The common grace City is something that came into existence postlapsum (after the fall) for the purpose of creating a stage upon which the drama of redemption could be played out (Gen. 4:13-16). It is neither demonic nor divine, but rather is a place where cultural, non-religious activity is to be performed by believers and non-believers alike (I Pet. 2:13-17).

What, then, is "God's Vision for the City"? Is the City a legitimate institution? Is its secular identity something that makes it off-limits or in need of transformation?

(Please note, I am not asking whether people in the City should be evangelized, or whether we ought to show mercy to the poor. Yes to both).

From the testimony of the Bible, it seems that God's vision for the City is that it remain what it is until the end. The story of Noah gives us a type of the final parousia, and there, Noah is called to be a "preacher of righteousness" while preparing the ark as the only hope for a doomed culture. And according to Jesus in Matt. 24:37ff, the days leading up to the Lord's coming will be no different -- the City will continue to exist, with its buying, selling, eating, drinking, and marriage, until God's purposes for it are exhausted. And when you take Rev. 17 and 18 into account, the conclusion seems inescabale that the City, "Babylon the Great," will be pronounced "Fallen! Fallen!" along with all its beauty, glory, merchantry, art, craftsmanship, and music.

If there is an implicit rebuke against God's people in any of these passages for their failure to transform the city from being creational to redemptive, I can't find it.

Can you?

Friday, February 24, 2006

The "Already," the "Not Yet," and the Transformation of Culture

John the Baptist promised that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). But grandiose predictions such as this tend to suffer when the supposed "King" displays an appalling lack of ambition, and then, to top it off, gets executed. It's safe to say that at this point the whole "kingdom venture" was called into question (Matt. 11:1-19). So what's the deal, is the kingdom here or not?

It is here that the phrases "already" and "not yet" must be introduced into the discussion. In some sense the kingdom has been inaugurated, but in another, the promise is still outstanding. The question for us is, "Where is the kingdom's power, and what does it look like?"

Or to stay on topic: Where is the "transformation" of culture that we desire?

Well, let's look to Christ and see if we can answer these questions. Did Jesus receive his promised crown, or didn't he? According to the biblical testimony, the answer is yes (John 12:13; 18:36; Rom. 1:4; I Tim. 1:17). But the Scripture is also quite clear that our Lord's kingdom is not earthly but heavenly (John 18:36). Throughout his earthly ministry he was subject to all of the limitations of life in this age: He had a physical body, he endured temptation, and he suffered in the flesh.

Here's the rub: As followers of Jesus, we have to endure the same things he endured.

This means that, like Jesus our Forerunner, we must patiently wait for the resurrection and manifestation of the kingdom's fullness and power (Rev. 1:9). Like Jesus, we must be content "for a litle while... to suffer various trials" (I Pet. 1:6). Like Jesus, we must be sown in weakness before we are raised in power (I Cor. 15:43).

In a word, we must carry our crosses, just as Jesus carried his.

The kingdom's power is hidden in this age, being glimpsed by such foolish means as the preached Word, the waters of baptism, the bread and the cup, and the indwelling Spirit whose presense secures our final glorification.

This means that it will not be until the day when "the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ" that our ultimate hope will be realized (II Pet. 3:12-13; Rev. 11:15).

As the Jewish theocracy foreshadowed, the two kingdoms of this present age will become one in the age to come, and righteousness will cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.

This is a properly-realized, amillennial eschatology. This is true transformationism. And this is something worth waiting for.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Transformationism: Amillennial or Postmillennial?

It has been great to see so many visitors this past week; we've had people from Seattle, San Antonio, St. Louis, Louisville, Charlottesville, D.C., and Aberdeen, Scotland. And thanks to those of you who have weighed in with comments (and for those who haven't, what are you waiting for?).

As some of you may be aware, in H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal work, Christ and Culture, he characterizes Calvin's position as "Christ the Transformer of Culture." Notwithstanding the fact that Niebuhr forgot to quote Calvin in the chapter devoted to him, the question could be raised whether "transformationism" is the best paradigm to capture the Church's relationship to, and responsibility in, society.

Transformationism, for those who haven't heard the term, is the view that the Church's role in this world includes transforming and redeeming the culture, and bringing it under the banner of Christ's Lordship (which, as contemporary Kuyperians tirelessly remind us, includes every "square inch" of the cosmos).

Obviously this position is directly opposed to the two kingdoms model, which recognizes culture as its own kingdom that is legitimate on its own terms, and therefore is not to be the object of redemptive efforts.

So here's my question: Is the desire to (in some sense) inaugurate the kingdom of God by means of cultural renewal more consistent with an amillennial or a postmillennial eschatology?

I'll show my cards later, but you first....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Two-Kingdoms Test Case

OK, we've presented the two kingdoms model and defended it biblically. Now let's take it out for a spin and see how it handles.

Consider the following scenario: You're the pastor of a church, and one of your members informs you that there is a bill before Congress that is seeking the removal of the phrase "One Nation Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. A handful of churches are planning a rally to protest this bill, and this person is asking if your church will be taking part.

What would you tell her?

(Click on "comments" below and weigh in).

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Biblical Defense of the Two Kingdoms: Part Three - NT Evidence

One of my former seminary profs recently presented a paper to the Evangelical Theological Society titled "In Praise of Profanity" (or something like that). And no, he wasn't talking about cuss words....

The term "profanity," of course, refers to things that are profane. Now "profane" can mean vulgar, but it doesn't have to mean that. One of the dictionary's definitions is simply "secular and non-religious." In other words, things that are profane are distinct from things that are holy; they are non-holy, but not necessarily unholy. Get it?

Understanding this category is crucial for understanding the two kingdoms paradigm. Some areas of life -- particularly those belonging to the civil kingdom -- are non-religious, i.e. they do not properly belong to the category of redemption, but to the category of creation. Yes, God still rules these areas, but he does so as Creator, not as Redeemer.

Consider a couple New Testament passages. First, Rom. 13:1-7. Here we read that all people, including believers, are to subject themselves to the government, even if it is evil and corrupt (which it was when Paul wrote this). The reason for this submission is that the civil magistrate bears the sword as a minister of God (v. 4). Therefore we are to render to Caesar his due: taxes, revenue, honor, and respect (v. 8).

Secondly, look at I Pet. 2:11-17. Describing our conduct "among the Gentiles" (or, out in the world), the apostle tells us to be subject to "every human institution" (vv. 12, 13). The reason we are to live this way is that we, like the Jews during their Babylonian captivity who received the same instruction, are "sojourners and exiles" in this age (v. 11). Our goal, like our Old Testament counterparts, is to pray for and seek the prosperity of our leaders and land, "that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (I Tim. 2:2; cf. Jer. 29:4-7).

What's conspicuous (and perhaps disappointing) by its absence is the call to redeem the culture and transform it into the kingdom of Christ. But the reason this call is absent from the biblical narrative (with the exception of typological, theocratic contexts like Israel in the holy land) is that, in God's economy, the civil and spiritual kingdoms are distinct. And further, this is how God has ordained life to be, at least in this present age.

Or to return to what I mentioned above, there is a category that is properly called "profane," and the civil matters that fall into this category (politics, art, dentistry) are just that, profane. They are not unholy, but non-holy. They are not sacred, but secular. They are not cultic, but cultural. In a word, these things are neither demonic nor divine, but are simply common grace endeavors that were never intended to be forcefully transferred or transformed from one category to the other.

So if the art you like doesn't depict biblical scenery, if the politician you voted for doesn't invoke the name of Jesus, or if the guy who tuned up your car doesn't have a fish on his add in the Yellow Pages, don't worry. Common grace blessings are just that: common to all God's creatures (believing or not). Until we recognize this, we'll never be able to enjoy them.

Thoughts or questions? Feel free to click on "comments" and join the conversation....

Monday, February 06, 2006

Exile, Cont'd

We have seen that the rules that govern God's people's relationship to culture are contingent upon their possession of the land. When the covenant community is sojourning in the land as strangers (Heb. 11:8-16), this relationship can be described as "pilgrim politics." The example of Abraham demonstrates, as we have seen, that the patriarchs were cultically and religiously distinct, but culturally homogenous.

But when Israel ceased to wander and settled in the land, the rules changed. Now they became a theocratic army whose mandate was not to dwell peacefully alongside the Canaanites, but to utterly destroy them.

(Interestingly, the strictness and rigidity shown in Israel’s universal withdrawal from pagan culture only applied to those living within the bounds of the land of Canaan. Outside Israel’s borders things remained as they had always been under the Abrahamic arrangement. This is demonstrated by the fact that Solomon engaged in friendly dealings with delegates from Tyre (I Kings 5:1ff) and with the queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1ff), without any hint that he was compromising or doing anything wrong.)

But what about the Babylonian captivity? What happened then?

Well, if the land plays such a significant role in determining God's people's relationship to the surrounding culture (as I have argued), then the situation during the exile is exactly what we would expect it to be:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'" Jeremiah 29:4-7

God’s covenant people, once again, were exiles without a homeland. As resident aliens in a pagan land they were culturally similar to the inhabitants of the land while remaining religiously separate from them. When outside the borders of the theocratic domain, Israel returned to the pilgrim ethic that characterized the patriarchs before the institution of the Mosaic covenant. They engaged in such common cultural activities as building houses, planting gardens, taking wives, and producing offspring, all the while praying for the welfare of Babylon. In exile, Israel’s distinctiveness and particularity was once again solely cultic (which explains why Daniel was willingly instructed in the pagan arts and literature of Babylon and even agreed to advise his ungodly rulers, while at the same time refusing to defile himself by eating Nebuchadnezzar’s delicacies or worshiping Darius, Dan. 1:1-8; 2:16; 5:17; 6:13). As during the period between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, Israel was religiously distinct but culturally homogenous.

But as Ezra 9:1-3, 10-12 shows us, when Israel returned to their land after their exile was ended the rules reverted back again to those of the theocracy: No more cultural assimilation. All of life -- the cultic and the cultural, the sacred and the secular -- was again to be considered holy.

In our next post we'll take a look at the cultural role of believers under the New Covenant. Hang on to your hats, because here's where things get really interesting....