Sunday, August 27, 2006

Being Salt of the Postmodern Earth - part I

In his book, Beware The Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, Harvey McKay says that he can walk into any factory, no matter how poorly run and no matter if it's on the verge of bankruptcy, and find something that is being done right and learn from it.

What does it mean for a Christian to be able to approach all ideas, whether they arise from an individual or from a culture or whether they arise within the church or outside the church, with the same approach that Harvey McKay takes toward poorly run factories? What is at stake in regard to Christians doing this or not doing this? In order to begin to answer these questions, a "doctrine of revelation" and a "hermeneutic" of ideas and culture needs to be clarified.

These past four weeks, through the "wet cat" series and in the "Hearing the voice of God, refracted" post, I have been simultaneously criticizing the cessationist doctrine of revelation and clarifying a continuationist position on revelation according to the following "doctrine of revelation".

  1. God has provided the "revelation of Scripture", the truths that are specific to His Kingdom through the prophets, apostles and Jesus that are laid out in the Bible canon.
  2. This canon of Scripture is a map, an outline to the Kingdom of God. It is not the whole picture down to the last detail. When Jesus says in John 16:12-13, "I have much more to say to you...", he is speaking to all believers through to the present day, and not merely to the apostles and not merely to those before the establishment of the canon.
  3. As God has provided Scriptural revelation, God is continuing to provide two other forms of revelation: a) "low-level" revelation of truths and wisdom that elaborate on and clarify the understanding and application of Scripture in believers, manifested in encounters that believers have with the Holy Spirit and manifested in the accumulation of church wisdom and experience and b) the ongoing general revelation of knowledge about the nature of creation through any and all who apply their mind and intuition. This is manifested in ideas that people arrive at including the accumulation of philosophical vocabulary and scientific knowledge.
  4. The Spirit of God is continually communicating to believers to increase our wisdom and understanding of Scripture and to make the truth of Scripture specific to our circumstances for the purpose of our growth and edification. The truth of "low-level" revelation and the general revelation of knowledge is intended to complement, elaborate on and enhance Scriptural revelation and is intended to be useful for our growth in wisdom and edification.
  5. God allows crises to occur, both to individuals and to societies as a means to draw people into deeper relationship with Him and to grow people in new aspects of wisdom. It is in the application of our minds, as believers, to engage God in the mystery that these crises present to us that the Spirit meets us to grow us in wisdom and character.

From these principles is derived the following doctrine of the ongoing general revelation of knowledge:

  1. God is the God of truth. Any truth that exists in the world, in any form that it is expressed, is owed to God.
  2. God allows imperfect humans to be the ones to express the ideas that attempt to convey some piece of the truth
  3. While God has entrusted the church with the truth of Scriptural revelation and the "low-level" revelation that elaborates on it, life is complicated and contains many aspects of truth that God has used and continues to use non-Christian people to arrive at. Non-Christians, while they do not have the sanctifying and redeeming power of the Holy Spirit empowering them to have the faith that justifies, never-the-less retain something of the image of God and something of the glory of God. It is through this image of God that the general revelation of knowledge operates through them.

From this doctrine of general revelation is derived this hermeneutic of ideas and culture:

  • The expresser of an idea can either be an originator or a perpetuator of an idea, and can be an individual or a group large or small.
  • Ideas have arisen to answer valid questions and to confront real crises, even as the ideas are often flawed. To confront the untruth that is contained in an idea, one must first confront the crisis that the idea was created to try to address.
  • Ideas can be spoken or unspoken, direct or indirect. Ideas can be manifested in art, culture, trends, fashion, etc... Ideas can arise from within the church or can be exported into the church from the wider culture.
  • If an idea contains both truth and untruth, any extent to which it is true must be attributed to God working through the idea expressor. Any extent to which the idea is false must attributed to ignorance and/or motives of the idea expresser that fall short of the glory of God.

It is with a sound doctrine of revelation and a sound hermeneutic of ideas that a Christian is equipped to approach any idea in the way that Harvey McKay approaches a poorly run factory, learning from any grains of truth that exists in an idea without also adopting its falsehood. What is at stake in this is the very nature of how Christians approach their relationship with God and how they approach ministry. Ideas, as blends of truth and untruth, gain their power because they exists as answers to valid questions and crises. It is only in confronting this reality with a sound doctrine of revelation and a sound hermeneutic of ideas that Christians are equipped to minister with power and relevance.

The need to confront crises by carefully extracting truth from the midst of untruth is a ministry principle that is applicable in all forms of ministry. In a successful missions endeavor, where the Gospel bears fruit and takes deep root in a culture, it is the result of the missionaries having applied the hermeneutic of ideas as outlined above to properly understand the culture and the crises within the culture that they are missionizing. This same basic hermeneutical principle is also the basis of successful therapy. When a person is struggling with bad thoughts and/or temptation, there is often a kernel of truth within the temptation that the person needs to confront in order to overcome the problem. There is a specific reason that lies in the heart, life and memory of the person as to why the problem has the bondage that it has. When this reason is uncovered by a hermeneutical application of looking to extract truth from the midst of untruth, the person is aided in their ability to "take their thoughts captive" and is able to begin to overcome the problem.

When Christians do not carefully separate the truth from the untruth in the sundry ideas that have been arrived at and are being arrived at in postmodern society, the untruth in any idea gains power and influence because it is connected to the truth in that idea. Here, the truth in an idea finds its only "voice" in postmodern society as something that is connected to the untruth. This unforunate result happens when Christians do not apply a sound doctrine of revelation and a sound hermeneutic of ideas to their practice of evangelism and discipleship by:

  • fighting culture wars by relying on smug, snarky remarks, political phalanxes and an attitude of "circling the wagons"
  • dismissing the mysterious and creative workings of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the culture at large, dismissing any "emergence" out of hand without testing it carefully for truth and untruth
  • treating the Gospel as a "Christ formula" that does not need to be contextualized to times and places
  • promoting doctrines that over-ride the teachings and practice of Jesus
  • acquiescing to aspects of postmodern culture without carefully vetting them, assuming that postmodern culture is too complicated to be taken captive or that aspects of postmodernism need to be uncritically adapted to church practice in order for the church to be relevant and "seeker-sensitive".

It is by applying a sound doctrine of revelation and a sound hermeneutic of ideas that a Christian is equipped to avoid these pitfalls and give "voice" to the truth in any idea within the context of the Gospel. It is by finding and clarifying the truth in the sundry ideas of postmodern society that a Christian is able to "hear the voice of God, refracted".

This act of carefully clarifying the truth and the falsehood in an idea serves purposes for both believers and unbelievers. For believers, it serves to edify them with added wisdom and intimacy with God, as they are better able to identify and confront the crisis in their midst that that idea was created to address. For unbelievers, it serves to invite them to embrace a different approach to the crisis. For these unbelievers, the power that is claimed by the untruth in the idea as a "voice" to the truth in the idea is weakened as a Christian gives an alternative "voice" to the truth by presenting the truth in the context of the Gospel. It is this act of Christian "deconstruction" that is part of what it means for a Christian to be salt in the postmodern earth.

With the understanding that God allows crises to occur to grow people in wisdom and intimacy with Him, God allows flawed ideas to occur in church and in society at large in order to invite Christians into a journey of seeking to untangle the crisis that these flawed ideas have arisen to confront. In this context, the Christian understands that it is his/her role to apply heart and mind to listen to God and receive His wisdom in order to properly clarify and contextualize the truth of the Gospel that specifically addresses the crisis that has presented itself in the form of a flawed idea. It is this liminality of listening to God and custom tailoring the Gospel to confront the crises that present themselves that is the essence of how Jesus conducted his earthly ministry.

It is the fruit of a Christian being engaged in this process that he/she is able to engage in a form of evangelism with postmodern people that is oriented around inviting them into dialogue about the crisis and not merely presenting them with a Christ formula. This Christian is also able to engage in a dialogical form of discipleship with other believers who are also in the midst of the crisis. It is the fruit of this dialogue that the power of the untruths in flawed ideas begins to be weakened throughout the church and throughout the culture at large.

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