Christ and Culture: Do They Connect?

Some theologians stand against our culture; others see it as a steppingstone to Christianity.

One of the perennial issues confronting the church through the ages is the enigmatic relationship between the claims of Christ and the wisdom of the culture. To what extent should Christians share in the hopes and visions of the culture in which they live? A number of recent books focus on the dynamic interplay between faith and knowledge, revelation and reason, theology and philosophy.

Some theologians stress the priority of faith and revelation over reason. Others emphasize the need for a rational preparation for faith. In this perspective, culture is seen as a steppingstone to Christianity. Still others make a real place for reason after faith and for culture in the service of the Word of God. Though by no means denying that revelation and faith come first, they nevertheless regard the role of reason as indispensable in elucidating the claims of faith.

Among those today who make a case for the role of reason in preparing the way for faith is the Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. In his Basic Questions in Theology (Westminster Press, 1983, 2 vols.), he argues that theological statements need to prove themselves “on the field of reason.” He summons Augustine to his defense: “No one believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed.” Natural reason can ascertain the truth of revelation, but the light of faith is necessary for one to commit oneself to this truth.

Deploring the neo-orthodox denigration of reason and culture, Pannenberg endeavors to draw upon the creative insights of culture as pointers to revelation. His affinities, he acknowledges, are with Bultmann and Tillich, who recommended beginning with the creative questions of culture and then seeking to correlate these with the answer of Christian faith. Revelation for him is not something foreign to reason or culture but the creative power that animates reason and culture. It “is not a supernatural event which breaks into history perpendicularly from above but rather … it is the theme of history itself, the power that moves it in its deepest dimension.”

A similar orientation can be detected in British theologian John Macquarrie’s In Search of Humanity (Crossroad, 1983). Orthodox Christian faith, Macquarrie charges, is hopelessly naïve. Consequently, there is need for “a new faith” whose aim is “to incorporate the genuine insights of science and of the whole spirit of secularity.” In his view, people have a “natural predisposition towards faith.” By appealing to this natural propensity, which he calls a fundamental trust in being, we can lead our hearers toward a trust in the New Being as perceived in Jesus Christ. All people are in quest of true humanity, and Jesus Christ, he says, is one but not the only paradigm of true humanity. Others he includes are Buddha and Confucius.

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Standing in marked tension with the above approaches is Thomas Torrance’s Reality and Evangelical Theology (Westminster Press, 1982). The author contends that God can be known only when he makes himself known in his revelation in Jesus Christ. Yet this revelation does not overturn our sensory perceptions but deepens and sharpens them. Torrance espouses what he calls a “realist unitary theory of knowledge,” which reflects confidence in the senses—not to arrive at revelation but to lead people to ultimate truth in the light of revelation. He insists that our theological statements must be tested and controlled through reference to the saving act of God in Jesus Christ. What is revealed, according to Torrance, is not propositions about God but God himself in the mystery of the Incarnation. The biblical language is seen as symbolic, pointing away from itself to the eternal God in himself.

In this book, Torrance constantly appeals to the scientific mentality that posits an objectively real world accessible to sense perception and rational evaluation. He criticizes a Platonic and Kantian dualism that draws a bifurcation between the real and the ideal. Even though he believes that revelation takes precedence over reason, Torrance here presents an apologetic defense of biblical truth in the light of the new scientific world view.

Like Torrance, Arthur Holmes affirms “the Christocentric unity of truth.” In his Contours of a World View (Eerdmans, 1983), he states the case for a theistic world view in contradistinction to the claims of naturalistic humanism. Against both fideism, which upholds uncritical acceptance, and foundationalism, which begins with first principles and then proceeds to deduce conclusions, he upholds “coherentism,” in which the claims of faith are justified by their coherence with the entire body of what one knows and believes. Holmes does not claim to present a logical proof for Christian theism, but he does contend that this option has more “intellectual credibility and human appeal” than naturalistic humanism. He acknowledges that a Christian apologetic needs to appeal “beyond life and hope.” In Holmes’s position, reason has a modest role prior to faith but a decisive role in elucidating the claims of faith in the light of Christian revelation.

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Quite different from all the authors already discussed is Jacques Ellul, probably the most distinguished lay theologian in Europe today. In his Living Faith (Harper, 1983), he makes a sharp distinction between faith and belief, revelation and religion. Whereas belief has a definite object that can be rationally apprehended, faith is casting ourselves on the mercy of the Wholly Other. The content of faith is “undefinable and ungraspable.” It is walking in the darkness drawn by an incomprehensible light that only occasionally illumines this darkness. Ellul disclaims any intellectual road to God and therefore repudiates the apologetic task. He even says that “there is no objective reason for believing.” We have to venture forth in trust in order to gain the assurance that we are on the right road. The author underlines the inescapable dichotomy between Christ and culture: “God makes it plain that law is not justice (the justice that God himself established as such), that human peace is not peace, that human virtue is not the blessing that God alone can say, that the human community is not communion with God, that human love is not Love.”

Ellul does not sound the call to withdrawal from the culture but urges inner detachment from the claims and values of the culture. If we are rooted in the Transcendent, we are then free to herald the claims of the gospel to the secular culture with integrity and boldness. There is always the possibility of culture being transformed in the light of the Christian revelation, Ellul believes, but this possibility is anchored in a faith that transcends and contradicts the hopes and aspirations of the culture.

Whereas Pannenberg, Tillich, and Macquarrie state the case for a correlation between the creative questions of the culture and the Christian answer, Ellul contends that cultural formulations actually serve to hide the fundamental question of human existence, which can only be known in the light of the Christian answer. Ellul can be justly criticized for emptying faith of all rational content, for sometimes losing sight of the objective basis of faith, for denying any validity whatsoever to apologetics. Nevertheless, he is to be commended for stressing the priority of faith over reason, the supremecy of Christian revelation over cultural ideology and philosophy.

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The dominant mood today in theology is rationalistic and apologetic. Theologians are once again seeking for a philosophical preamble to faith. They are once more trying to build bridges between the folly of the gospel and the wisdom of the world. Increasingly, they are seeing culture as a source of revelation and not simply the field in which revelation proves its credibility. We need prophets like Ellul to remind us that God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ means the entrance into culture, of that which is absolutely new. We need to take seriously his contention that revelation signifies the invasion of a transcendent truth claim into cultural discourse and life, one that overthrows all cultural life views and world views.

The way to cultural transformation is not by a synthesis between Christian faith and the highest values of the culture, nor is it by correlation between the Christian answer and the creative questions of culture. Instead, it consists in the conversion of cultural attitudes and goals into the service of the kingdom of God, which breaks into the cultural arena from the beyond.

Reviewed by Donald G. Bloesch, professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.

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