This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series: The Post-Evangelical (Tomlinson)
Chapter 9 of Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical discusses ‘positive worldliness’.
The author informs us that he was brought up to have a deep distrust of ‘the world’. The Christian was not to feel at home in the world. It was there to be evangelised, but not to be enjoyed. Of course, things have loosed up in more recent years, but the legalistic prohibitions have been replaced within the sub-culture by christianised alternatives. We have Christian festivals, Christian theatre, Christian computer games, and Christian aerobics set to Christian music. Beyond the world of entertainment, we have Christian businesses, Christian schools, Christian law practices, and so on.
Many post-evangelicals will admit they they get more satisfaction and fulfilment from the ‘secular’ versions of such things than from the ‘Christian’ versions.
In seeking to understand our relationship with the world, it is important to understand the human condition from a theological perspective.
The paradox of the human condition is that are both a part of, and apart from, our environment.
The contradictions in the human condition lie in the fact that although we still bear the image of God, it has been corrupted through sin. It is often thought that the image of God consists in qualities such as rationality, will, or responsibility. It may be preferable, however, to view it as a capacity for ‘being’, as a capacity to actualise ourselves in relationships, including relaitonships with God.
Our capacity to be God-like has been crippled by sin. John Calvin was too gloomily negative with his doctrine of the ‘total depravity of man’. In his view, the image of God was effaced by sin, and man was incapable of any good other than that which resulted from the divine “restraining grace”. “Everything proceeding from the corrupt nature is damnable”, he said; and any apparent manifestations of “good nature” or virtue in unregenerate people is illusory and worthless.’ But this is ‘both unbiblical and profoundly unhelpful’.
In order to restate the meaning and effects of the Fall we must first acknowledge that human sin is self-inflicted. Second, the essence of sin is idolatry. Third, human fallenness is universal: it affects every part of every person. And fourth, its effects cannot be reversed without the presence of divine grace.
But we must add that although God image has been defaced, it has not been effaced. Although every part of every person is affected by the Fall, they are not all affected as much as they could be. We must also add that the very helplessness of our condition leads us to a search for grace.
Evangelicals are too ready to affirm human sinfulness, too slow to recognise God’s image in others. It may be that many are seeking God’s grace who do not yet know what they are seeking. This suggests that the barriers we set up between church and world, and between Christian and non-Christian, are too sharply defined.
How then should we relate to the world? Culture, just like the individual, reflects both God’s image and the corruption of human sinfulness. Culture is pervasive: even our concept of God is conditioned by culture. And theology, which seeks to put this into words, can never be final, and more than culture can be final. Moreover, theology cannot be final because it is knowledge of a Person with whom we are in relationship.
It follows that to talk of a painting or novel or piece of music as ‘Christian’ or ‘non-Christian’ is to make a superficial judgment, one which ignores the complexities and contradictions of the human condition.
Why does the secular world so often produce better cultural artefacts than Christians? Often, secular artists, writers and performers are wrestling with with issues or celebrating life at a deeper level than those living in the Christian ghetto. They often explore the full gamut of human emotion. Christians deny their darker emotions and feel guilty if they become depressed. And again, they repress rather than express their sexual and erotic feelings.
Of course, there is a danger that Christian involvement in the arts becomes a sell-out to the spirit of the age.
We need more opportunity for communal reflection on issues raised by contemporary culture.
We need to make continual use of the biblical text as the arena for thinking about issues. We shoud not use the Bible as a textbook, but as a resource to fund our deliberations.
We need maintain uncompromised integrity. When Paul says, that ‘whatever is not of faith is sin’, Romans 14:23, ‘he means that it is probably more important that we are true to our convictions than whether our convictions ultimately prove to be correct or not.’
In these ways we can be ‘positively worldly’.
Comment: Tomlinson’s account of Calvin’s doctrine of sin is second-hand and second-rate. As Grudem says, the doctrine of total depravity is certainly not intended to give the impression ‘that no good in any sense can be done by unbelievers.’ (Systematic Theology, 497). In fact, the doctrine means something similar to what Tomlinson himself concedes – that no part of human nature is unaffected by sin.
Apart from this, I can agree to some extent with Tomlinson’s irritation that evangelicals do not engage more fully with the world, although the problem is more acute in the fundamentalism in which he was raised than in the main-stream evangelicalism from which he seeks to distance himself. As with the rest of the book, he pays scant attention both to Scripture and to evangelical scholarship, both of which shed clear light on this question of the Christian’s engagement with ‘the world’.