I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

TODAY'S CHURCH AND CULTURE: The Need to Go Back to the Future

The past helps us to understand not only why our culture is where it is today but also how it got where it is.  I believe the undeniable shift from modernism to postmodernism is under-appreciated in the church at large, and is certainly under-applied in her strategy for reaching this generation.  Moreover, I would argue that the church should be neither modernist (which it sadly has) nor postmodern (which it often tries hard to be).  Rather, we should be true and faithful to our roots, which can be called paleo-orthodoxy.[1] 

Predictably, modernism, which attempted to dethrone God and setup man and human reason as the ultimate authority in every sphere, utterly failed to flesh out its lofty promises of progress, peace, and prosperity.  It was thought that, if the Enlightenment principles of human autonomy were rigorously applied, ignorance, hatred, war, and the whole host of other social ills would be eliminated.  Through rationalism and science, moreover, humanity could engineer its own evolutionary progress at a light speed pace, finally reaching a utopian-like society.  What, however, did these utopian dreams deliver us?  The climax of modernism—the 19th and 20th centuries—gave us two world wars and the bloodiest century in history.  More people were murdered through war, apartheid, and genocide during the 20th century than in all previously recorded history!  Or, as T. S. Eliot despaired the situation in elevated verse:

            Where is the Life we have lost in living?
            Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
            Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
            The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
            Bring us further from GOD and nearer to the Dust.[2]

Sadly, the church largely tried to fight the modernist dogma with modernistic weapons.  Systematic theologians were rigorously rationalistic.  Apologetics were also markedly rationalistic, attempting to satisfy the critera of the Foundationalists.  The Bible was wrenched to appease the ever-changing and ever-increasing scientific theories that, in principle, were (and are) perfectly incompatible with the Faith’s most basic presuppositions.  Evangelism and church-growth became highly methodological (epistemological methodism being a badge of modernism).  Thus, the church was plagued with the problem of understanding her convictions in terms of the spirit of the age, modernism.  Amid this morass, however, there were near prophetic voices, which sought to rescue the church from her modernistic Babylonian captivity.  Rather than struggling to couch the Faith in modernists’ term, Abraham Kuyper, for example, sought to confront modernism and its ecclesiastic hegemony.  Regarding the modernist challenge, Kuyper prescribes the following.

Do not forget that the fundamental contrast has been, is still, and will be until the end: Christianity and Paganism, the idols or the living God…Accordingly, radical determination must be insisted upon.  Half-measure cannot guarantee the desired result.  Superficiality will not brace us for the conflict.  Principle must again bear witness against principle, world-view against world-view, spirit against spirit.[3]

With nearly the vigor and candor of an Old Testament prophet, Kuyper, and those in his train of tradition (e.g., Herman Dooyewerd, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, et al.), have preempted the postmodern challenge by prescribing the strategy for the battle against modernism.  However, is postmodernism any friendlier to the Faith than modernism has historically been?  I think, no.

Regarding the reality of postmodernism, Don Carson is spot on.  “Postmodernism gently applied rightly questions the arrogance of modernism; postmodernism ruthlessly applied nurtures a new hubris and deifies agnosticism.”[4]  Whereas the modernist purist deified reason (especially explicit during the French Revolution!) through rationalism, postmodernism deifies agnosticism, resulting in irrationalism.  Postmodernism says that no one can know anything absolutely, and of that fact we are absolutely sure!  Thus, the foundational shift from modernism to postmodernism is largely a radical shift—in fact a polarity—in epistemology.  Modernism reached for divine, comprehensive, absolute knowledge predicated on human reason alone, which is idolatry; postmodernism, on the contrary, revels in universal agnosticism, ignorance being the only virtue left, which is no less arrogant and no less idolatrous.  Both perspectives definitively hold that God is not there, and he has not spoken.

Therefore, if we have learned anything from the past it is that the church should not accommodate a compromise with the prevailing spirit of the age, as it did with modernism.  This generation (i.e., “the Bridgers”; the born and bred postmoderns) are caught in a dialectical tension, concerning their view of the church: it is either “reactionary” or “redefining.”  Of course, there are those in the middle.  However, it is the polarities that usually shape the future.  So, to these we must pay close attention. 

The “reactionaries” tend toward traditionalism, whereas the “redefinitionals” are opting for the so-called Emergent movement within certain circles.[5] What I see happening within the Emergent movement is simply the same errors committed by the modernist church of the past century.  If the church in the past was guilty for their compromise with the spirit modernism, then the Emergent is equally guilty of incarnating the spirit of postmodernism.  Both have been unfaithful in presenting their respective generations with an authentic alternative to the prevailing worldly-worldview.  If the modernist church was guilty of making man more than he is, then the postmodern Emergent is guilty of making God much less than he is.  Either way, the sin of idolatry crouches at the door, and as always, its desire is for us!

I believe, therefore, if we wish to be faithful to our sovereign Lord Jesus, and to this generation, we must skew both the modernist and the postmodernist perspective and return to a paleo-orthodoxy.  For me, paleo-orthodoxy contextualizes the enduring gospel and the creedo-confessional faith.  It is traditional in one sense.  We are absolutists in presuppositions that transcend the modernist-postmodernist shift.  We can know absolute truth, for instance, not because man is so great (i.e., modernism), but because God is so good, in that he has condescended in revealing Truth, in nature, in history, in Scripture, and supremely in his Son (see e.g., Ps. 19; Jn. 1:1—18; Heb. 1:1—3).  Nevertheless, paleo-orthodoxy confesses that man is also largely ignorant, not because he is alone in the universe, leaving us with wash-up epistemological relativism (i.e., postmodernism), but precisely because he is finite and fallen, and is therefore utterly dependent on God for any knowledge rightly called so.  Presenting a paleo-orthodoxy to this generation offers an authenticity and transparency that our youth need to see today; it is epistemologically humble, but doesn’t revel in ignorance; it presents a holistic message of salvation to a confused and ideologically tossed generation, extending a solid Rock on which to stand in this age, and on which to hope for the age to come.  Paleo-orthodoxy invites this generation of young people to understand their life-story in terms of God’s people, the Church, and his creation-redemptive story, which has always confessed through the faddish ages,

            We believe in God the Father Almighty,
            The maker of heaven and earth,
            And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
            Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
            Born of the virgin Mary,
            Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
            Was crucified, dead, and buried,
            The third day he arose again from the dead,
            And now sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
            From thence, he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

            We believe in the Holy Ghost,
            The holy catholic Church,
            The communion of the saints,
            The forgiveness of sins,
            The resurrection of the body,
            And the life everlasting.  Amen!  

If we are to reach our youth and make a lasting change and reversal in this culture, we must be honest and authentic; we must resist fads, appealing to every whim of the student’s culture in the name of contextualization, and present something altogether different—something as different as light is from darkness, as the temple of God is from idols, as Christ is from Belail.  We must not yoke the Faith with the prevailing spirit of infidelity, whether that be modernist or postmodernist (2 Cor. 6:14—16).  We must faithfully proclaim that what is real, right, rational, and remedial for mankind is either the Faith that is built upon the sure Rock, or it is a false-faith built on the shifting, sinking sands of the prevailing culture (Matt. 7:24—27).  As throughout history, it is only this conviction, the biblical presupposition of the revelation of God in Christ to all ages that affords the Church today with a foundation that will support the radical influx of young people who would, by grace alone, heed such a high calling! 

Paleo-orthodoxy begins where the earliest catechesis begins, the Didache.  “There are two ways: one of life and one of death!  And there is a great difference between the two ways” (1:1).[6]  Both the modernist church and the so-called Emergent postmodernist church have utterly failed to press this age-old antithesis between Light and Darkness.  If we are to reach into the life and soul of this generation, we must not!

[1] A term coined, to my best knowledge, by Thomas Oden, the sharpest systematician of the Methodist tradition.

[2] T. S. Eliot, “The Rock,” in The Complete Poems and Plays, (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1980), 24—25.
[3] Abraham Kuyper, Christianity: a Total World and Life System, (Marborough, NH: The Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1996), 120, 121.

[4] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 544.

[5]We should be careful with these categories, however.  A close look at the Emergent movement proves it to be more reactionary than the so-called reactionaries tending toward traditionalism.  
[6] Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, translation, and Commentary, (Collegeville, MN: Litergical Press, 2003), 3. (The Didache is a first century catechesis, likely rooted in the Hebraic-Christian context.)


  1. What? You mean we can't just incorporate pagan culture into the Church by adding a little bit of Jesus to it? You truly are reactionary, and may God bless you for it

  2. It is a novel concept today, that the Church should be separated and distinct from the culture. The only thing rarer than this idea is the beatific encouragement to be a reactionary! ;) So, thanks for that! Blessings to you!