The Theological Framework of Cultural Engagement

Assessing Christian Concern for Culture
Part One: The Theological Framework of Cultural Engagement
Notes from Lectures by Greg Thompson

These notes are from lectures that constitute an extended meditation on Matthew 5:13-16, which depicts an encounter between the church and the world:

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Mat 5:13-16 ESV)

The question to be addressed: “What does it mean for us as people to participate in and lead churches to move into the world in the name of Jesus so that things change as a result?”

I.  Theological Framework of Cultural Engagement

A.  Stages of Cultural Interaction – How do these fit you and the people to whom you are ministering? These may or not be self conscious.

1.  Cultural Antagonism

+: real need for a discriminate eye about what culture to accept

– : does not take what God says about his creation seriously; isolationist

2.  Cultural Appreciation

+: takes what God says about his creation seriously

-: idea heavy, action light

3.  Cultural engagement

+: Anticipates actual outworking of Revelation 21 and acknowledges power to contribute to world’s flourishing.

– : Power of sin and curse is great, effects of engagement can seem ephemeral, need never ends, overwhelming, leads to 4.

4.  Cultural Disillusionment. You have grand visions for 3, you communicate and nurture them in your people, pouring all your energy into them and they either end up working 140 hours/week or can only get a job as a fry cook at McDonalds. You might blame them for your own disillusionment.

5.  Cultural Reassessment – re-assesses theology and theopraxis of culture in light of experience. This class is a product of G. Thompson’s cultural reassessment.

B.  Does God intend to use His Church to participate in and transform actual cultural structures? Yes. Why?

1.  Trinitarian Love for the World – the triune God is actually oriented toward the world favorably. Father-Son-Holy Spirit actually LOVES THIS WORLD.

a.  Contra: divine hostility to the world (God is hostile to sin not the world.)

b.  Contra: divine indifference to the world (this is the view or attitude that creation is a backdrop for God’s redemption but does not itself participate in that redemption).

2. Enduring Goodness of Creation – Seven times God rejoices in the world’s goodness. Humans are designed to cultivate the world – to nurture its goodness. Therefore, the created order is central to God’s plan.

a. Contra: Anti-materialism (neo-gnosticism) – perspective about the nature of the world that the spiritual is higher and material is lower order in creation.

b. Contra: Pietism – perspective about the nature of salvation / redemption that the spiritual is more important than the material. Sometimes under this view the material realm has -0- importance. Seek to identify this view in activities that address the nature of salvation such as preaching, views on eschatology, etc.

The implications of anti-materialism and (especially) pietism are very important for all of the analysis below.

3. Pervasive Nature of Sin – sin profoundly affects both the spirtual and the material.

a. Guilt – this is the human experience of sin that affects both legal status before God (guilt proper) and human experience in the form of shame.

b. Corruption – this is the non-human experience of sin in the form of the lit. dis-integration of the world; the blow that sin struck against shalom. Unlike guilt which is fundamentally personal, corruption extends to all of creation.

The co-reign of guilt and corruption within the pervasive nature of sin is essential to a theology of cultural engagement. Viewing the effect of sin only in terms of guilt ignores the effect of sin on world structures. [JCJ: The curse itself might be a limited form of the ultimate judgment of God saying “not my will be done, but thy will be done to us together”?] Viewing the effect of sin only in terms of corruption fails to deal with the human problem that causes cultural corruption.

NB: The best path to reprove and guide others involves a balance of affirmation and protest.

4. Expansive Scope of the Gospel – Scripture uses the word “gospel” and the concept behind it much more expansively than we tend to use it. CFRC (top row) is not merely redemptive history but all of history.

a. Gospel (definition): The good news that in Jesus Christ God is taking a good creation that has fallen into sin and restoring it in every single way until at last all things are made new.

i. In Jesus’ first miracle, the wine actually participates in the gospel, participates in God’s salvation.

ii. See John’s account of the resurrection.

iii. Mary mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener. How right she is.

b. Gospel expands into all of these categories:

Creation Fall Redemption Consummation
God Peace Condemnation Reconciliation* With God
Self Dignity Shame** Image of Christ✝ Perfected
Others Delight Violence Love✝✝ Delight
World Fruitfulness Futility✦ Recultivation✦✦ Flourishing
Kingdom Shalom Sorrow Shalom in Process Shalom at Rest♣

* Systematic theological categories of justification and union with Christ go here.
** “You can look in the mirror and not like your own face. Think of that!” What a distortion of the goodness of our creation in God’s image!
✝ Systematic theological category of sanctification goes here. Also the restoration in us of the Imago Dei because we are conformed to the image of His Son. See (or think about) Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; and Col 3:10 in this connection.
✝✝ Christ came to restore us to each other in His body; herein lies the scriptural motif of neighbor and church.
✦ Thorns and thistles.
✦✦ Christ is the firstborn of all creation. Col. 1:15
♣ Cessation from strife and striving.

i. This expansive view guards against a merely personal gospel (i.e., only the first row).

ii. This expansive view guards against a merely social gospel (i.e., pieces of rows 3 and 4).

iii. Either a merely personal gospel or a merely social gospel cannot sustain a theology of cultural engagement.

iv. This expansive view guards against an artifical separation of gospel and kingdom (i.e., Row 1 = gospel, Rows 2-4 = kingdom) No. It’s all gospel.

c. For right now, Jesus himself is doing all 4 rows of the chart. [JCJ – I think this is wrong but I need to think about it. I think that the church is Jesus’ authoritative representative on earth by the power of the Spirit commissioned to move the Kingdom from redemption to consummation.]

d. The work of Jesus is not divisible. He came to do all of this. “It is finished.” means all of these things.

e. Read Romans 8 in the light of this full gospel — sons and daughters of God and creation are together again. There is a heavily material view of salvation in Chapter 8.

f. The top row is experientially primary, but not redemptively primary.

g. For people who are resistant to this view of the gospel, or are still learning how to see it, G. Thompson said: “I catch my people in their own moments of delight in the world and claim it for them in the name of God and His gospel.”

5. Deep Meaning of Union With Christ – God dwells with us. Humans are made for God. Humans participate in Christ’s work through union

a. Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius, Augustine, Owen (Communion with God).

b. In conceiving the extent of union, the legal, ethical, and experiental are all very important to be lived and believed simultaneously.

i. Legal Union – vital for sinners who can’t get over guilt – their debt is paid.

ii. Ethical Union – vital for sinners who do not believe they can live as called to live – they can be transformed.

iii. Experiential Union – vital to overcome loneliness – God is present with you as a delighted love.

c. Contra: Legal reduction – union securing a merely legal reality, human court metaphor, only judicial.

i. No ethical – How do I follow Jesus? No answer, therefore lack of endurance and likelihood of failure.

ii. No experiential – Does He love me? Tends to narcissism.

d. Contra: Ethical reduction – union merely making possible a following of Christ’s steps (Ignatius of Loyola); mere an example to be followed, Weslyan, divine summons, Imitation of Christ.

i. No legal – what good is the rest if I’m still guilty?

ii. No experiential – Does he love me? Tends to narcissism.

e. Contra: Experiential reduction – union facilitating merely a marital bond of divine love, divine groom and bride. Tends to the monastic. Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Alvilia, Bernard of Clairveaux, Calvin on Communion as the “kiss of our Lord,” Richard Sibbes, Love of Christ

i. No legal – what good is the rest if I’m still guilty?

ii. No ethical – How do I follow Jesus? No answer, therefore lack of endurance and likelihood of failure.

6. Missional Vocation of the Church – Scripture testifies that God is on mission in this world. How? Through His church. God’s mission of glory is worked out through the life of the church. The church is essential to his mission in both local expression and global reach. There is lots of resistance to the Church as an agent of redemption in the world. Reformed Circles: 2 Kingdom Theology, Spirituality of the Church (Thornwell / Dabney). There are three aspects to the missional vocation of the church:

a. We are the recipients of God’s mission. If we lose sight of this we become merely angry activists.

b. The church itself is an embodiment of God’s mission and a foretaste of its consummation.

i. Church is about Christians doing what you do and letting non-Christians see what you do.

ii. We represent God’s reconciliation.

iii. Learn to love one another in the church.

iv. Must be a place where the world (of course, creation sense here) is valued and taken seriously.

v. We are called together to embody the New World in our lives, liturgy, and relationships.

vi. The goal is not the happiness of our people but the manifestation of God’s kingdom.

c. We are bearers of the mission of God. Vital part of this is proclamation of the Word. Our mission is to bring the word of Jesus Christ into the world. The words we say must bear witness to God’s life in this world.

i. Worship – corporate worship is a witness act. In our worship we bear witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. This has significant implications of language and liturgy. We should be more Christian and not less, but also intelligible.

ii. Welcome – open homes and churches to nonbelievers, bearing witness to the kingdom of God. The Table is important; table manners have Kingdom implications.

iii. Work – New City Commons – the “space” made by the quadrilateral vertices of Government, School, Commerce/Market, and Church to collaborate together for the common good. Church and its people want to collaborate for the good of our neighbors, and collaboration to create such common spaces manifests the Kingdom of Heaven itself.

7. Restorational Character of Eschatology – the future of history is a restorational future.

a. Guards against escapist eschatology (Christians will be removed from world) which is very strong in American Evangelical eschatology.

b. Gratia non tollit sed reparat / perficit naturam. Grace does not destroy but repairs perfects nature.

i. No specific commitment to timing – no commitment to a particular millenial view is necessary.

ii.No specific claims about particulars (e.g., is the Arch going to be there in the eschaton?).

c. Sets the stage for the mission of the church that continues as a participant in the future restored world.

i. [Newbigin Quote from Signs amid the Rubble. Until I figure it out, here are some proxies.]

ii. “[T]he Church is not what it is because it exists by the mercy of God who calls the things that are not as though they were. [ Rom. 4.17] The Church is not merely a historical reality but also an eschatological one.” Newbigin, The Household of God.

iii. “The Church is both a means and an end, because it is a foretaste. It is the community of the Holy Spirit who is the earnest of our inheritance. The Church can only witness to that inheritance because her life is a real foretaste of it, a real participation in the life of God Himself. Thus worship and fellowship, offering up praise and adoration to God, receiving His grace, rejoicing in Him, sharing one with another the fruits of the Spirit, and building up one another in love are all essential to the life of the Church. Precisely because the Church is her and now a real foretaste of heaven, she can be a witness and instrument of the kingdom of heaven.” Newbigin, The Household of God.

II. Cultural Theory

III. Instantiating Framework and Theory into Particular Ministry Contexts

About this entry