I recently revisited the very underrated series at Reformed Forum on the relationship between Christianity and culture. There has been a good amount of sustained discussion recently regarding this topic, perhaps because it involves some root theological matters that are anything but peripheral. As I’ve surveyed these key issues, it looks as though at least most of the hot-button ones include the following.
- Epistemological – what is the status of the believer’s and unbeliever’s knowledge?
- Eschatological – what has Christ redeemed at this point in redemptive history and what, if anything, will remain from it in the new heavens and the new earth?
- Ecclesiological – what is the proper relationship of the church to non-church culture?
I consider it fortunate that on this site I don’t need to introduce Van Til, so hopefully a few familiar concepts will suffice in pointing out a few Reformed epistemological fundamentals. First and not surprisingly, Rom 1:18f is a great place to start. Unbelievers possess the truth about God clearly described in v. 20 while they also suppress that same truth and behave in the ways described in v. 21f. Which unbelievers is Paul describing? If unrighteousness is the condition (v. 18) for suppression, Paul is describing whoever is unrighteous: all unbelievers. Unbelieving doctors, unbelieving hunters, unbelieving historians, unbelieving homemakers, etc.
Moving from the dynamic of simultaneous knowledge/suppression in Romans 1, Paul elaborates in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 on the epistemological antithesis between believer and unbeliever. There is no trithesis, only two options: believing knowledge and unbelieving ignorance. What are the “things” of 1 Cor. 2:10 that God has revealed and how are they revealed? God reveals wisdom that is not of this temporary world, and he reveals His wisdom by his Spirit. The natural person of this age cannot understand them because he does not have the Spirit to discern them. So we see that when describing the epistemological situation of “humanity”, it makes all the difference in the world whether we refer in individual cases to a person who has the Spirit to discern or to a person who does not have the Spirit.
This is also why there should be no sharp separation between general revelation and special revelation, but between those who have the Spirit to receive rightly both modes of revelation and those who do not. The issue is not with the clarity of revelation, it is with the condition of those to whom it is revealed. Too often general revelation is defined as something like “that truth at which one arrives by virtue of neutral (perhaps God-given in some cases) reason.” Van Til is exceedingly helpful in clarifying this relationship in his essay “Nature and Scripture” where he elaborates on what the Westminster Confession teaches on revelation and gives us principles for a Reformed philosophy of history.
So how do we account for the achievements of unbelievers (much of which exceed the achievements of believers at times)? Does the epistemological antithesis have no effect? What is said above may be relevant when speaking directly of epistemology or religion, but what about in other spheres like dentistry, computer repair, athletics, bridge engineering, or the office of mayor? Simply because an engineer may never need to think about or articulate the epistemological context in which he finds himself in order to maintain the patterns acceptable within his vocation and field does not mean he has, in fact, no epistemological context. Not only does he take for granted things like order within the creation, ethical norms and practices, etc. but he also does so without affirming the Originator and rightful Owner of those foundations, Christ himself. It should also go without saying that “success” within any vocation is not first measured by whether one’s operations and achievements are acceptable within a given field (although it may include that), but by whether one is consistently living out the Christian faith within his or her vocation (which, admittedly in some vocations, may empirically look identical to an unbeliever who lives out his or her vocation contrary to the Christian faith). The heart is the spring from which thought and behavior flow, and the condition of the heart as either Spiritual or unspiritual will have an effect on thought and behavior, regardless of whether that effect is seen or unseen, visible or invisible.
There may be some who draw a false implication from this that Christians should then legalistically micro-scrutinize every thought and behavior to see whether it passes the test of “Christian” or “unChristian.” That is a test that has already been passed for us. Believers are in Christ and a new creation, redeemed, given a regenerate heart and indwelt by the Spirit. Of course believers still sin, but we are now able not to sin, and this has profound implications for covenant-keepers. The behavioral details in the life of the believer may often come down to an issue of biblical wisdom, and this is where the dynamic between God’s law and Christian liberty must be thought through carefully in individual cases.
Another false implication may be that because of what is said above, we must avoid any secular vocation or field, or perhaps give up any notion of our “success” in a secular field or vocation and merely keep our head down while getting by as a Christian in an unbelieving sphere. Nothing is further from the truth, and perhaps an example would serve well here. Alvin Plantinga, generally undisputed by both believers and unbelievers to be in the very top tier of philosophers in the 20th/21st centuries, writes the following in his “Advice to Christian Philosophers”:
First, it isn’t just in philosophy that we Christians are heavily influenced by the practice and procedures of our non-Christian peers. (Indeed, given the cantankerousness of philosophers and the rampant disagreement in philosophy it is probably easier to be a maverick there than in most other disciplines.) The same holds for nearly any important contemporary intellectual discipline: history, literary and artistic criticism, musicology, and the sciences, both social and natural. In all of these areas there are ways of proceeding, pervasive assumptions about the nature of the discipline (for example, assumptions about the nature of science and its place in our intellectual economy), assumptions about how the discipline should be carried on and what a valuable or worthwhile contribution is like and so on; we imbibe these assumptions, if not with our mother’s milk, at any rate in learning to pursue our disciplines. In all these areas we learn how to pursue our disciplines under the direction and influence of our peers.
But in many cases these assumptions and presumptions do not easily mesh with a Christian or theistic way of looking at the world. This is obvious in many areas: in literary criticism and film theory, where creative anti-realism (see below) runs riot; in sociology and psychology and the other human sciences; in history; and even in a good deal of contemporary (liberal) theology. It is less obvious but nonetheless present in the so-called natural sciences. The Australian philosopher J. J. C. Smart once remarked that an argument useful (from his naturalistic point of view) for convincing believers in human freedom of the error of their ways is to point out that contemporary mechanistic biology seems to leave no room for human free will: how, for example, could such a thing have developed in the evolutionary course of things? Even in physics and mathematics, those austere bastions of pure reason, similar questions arise. These questions have to do with the content of these sciences and the way in which they have developed. They also have to do with the way in which (as they are ordinarily taught and practiced) these disciplines are artificially separated from questions concerning the nature of the objects they study-a separation determined not by what is most natural to the subject matter in question, but by a broadly positivist conception of the nature of knowledge and the nature of human intellectual activity.
And thirdly, here, as in philosophy, Christians must display autonomy and integrality. If contemporary mechanistic biology really has no place for human freedom, then something other than contemporary mechanistic biology is called for; and the Christian community must develop it. If contemporary psychology is fundamentally naturalist, then it is up to Christian psychologists to develop an alternative that fits well with Christian supernaturalism-one that takes its start from such scientifically seminal truths as that God has created humankind in his own image.
Of course I do not presume to tell Christian practitioners of other disciplines how properly to pursue those disciplines as Christians. (I have enough to spare in trying to discern how to pursue my own discipline properly.) But I deeply believe that the pattern displayed in philosophy is also to be found in nearly every area of serious intellectual endeavor. In each of these areas the fundamental and often unexpressed presuppositions that govern and direct the discipline are not religiously neutral; they are often antithetic to a Christian perspective. In these areas, then, as in philosophy, it is up to Christians who practice the relevant discipline to develop the right Christian alternatives. [italics mine]
One can argue how consistent Plantinga is in his writings on this particular matter, but that discussion aside, I think he articulates well some fundamental truths regarding vocational pursuit as a Christian.