An Interview with Bruce Ashford on Christian Cultural Engagement

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everysquareinch

Bruce Ashford—provost and dean of faculty, and professor of theology and culture, at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—has written a new, short, introductory but meaty book entitled Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his approach.

What is the argument or thesis of Every Square Inch?

In Every Square Inch I am arguing that absolutely everything in life matters to Christ. His Lordship is as wide as creation and therefore is as wide as culture. We should seek to bring every aspect of human culture—the arts, the sciences, politics and economics, scholarship and education, business and entrepreneurship, sports and competition—under submission to his Lordship.

The book works off of that thesis and seeks to equip a broad readership to engage in cultural activities in a meaningfully Christian manner.

In the first part of the book, I interact with competing theories of culture and then build a basic theology of culture.

Next, I provide six case studies of historical exemplars:

  • Augustine
  • Hübmaier
  • Kuyper
  • Lewis
  • Sayers
  • Schaeffer.

Finally, I give introductory treatments of five aspects of Western culture:

  • the arts
  • the sciences
  • politics and the public square
  • economics and wealth
  • scholarship and education.

Does this make you a transformationalist, to use Niebuhr’s famous category?

Yes and no.

Yes, if I have to pick one of Niebuhr’s categories, I pick Christ the transformer.

But no, I wouldn’t fit neatly into that category.

One reason I wouldn’t fit neatly is that I don’t think “transformation” is our ultimate goal in this time between the times. Our ultimate goal is to glorify Christ through witness and obedience, in the hopes that we might actually transform our culture. Our culture-making and culture-shaping should be done in obedience to Christ and can be a powerful witness to him, but we should not expect to be able to transform our culture in a comprehensive or final manner. Culture won’t truly or wholly be transformed until Christ returns to make all things new.

A second reason I don’t prefer Niebuhr’s categories is that they don’t get to the bottom of the issue. The deeper question is the relationship of nature and grace, and the nature-grace question is really a matter of discerning the meaning of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, and the relationship between those doctrines.

Could you give us a brief summary of the main views on nature and grace and the one you find most persuasive?

One view (often associated with manualist Thomists) is “grace above nature.” In this view, God’s gracious salvation is something that adds to, and fulfills, the natural realm.

Another view (often associated with certain Anabaptists and Pietists) is “grace against nature.” In this view, the Fall corrupted the natural world ontologically in such a manner that God’s salvation causes Christians to withdraw from the world and live a Christian life separate from it.

A third view (associated with Luther and some Reformed evangelicals) is “grace alongside of nature.” In this view, the natural realm and the realm of grace each have their own integrity, existing alongside of one another.

A fourth view, and the one I prefer, is “grace renews and restores nature.” This view is associated with Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and, I think, is the best way to describe the views of Irenaeus and Augustine. In this view, sin does not have the power to corrupt the natural realm structurally. Instead, it corrupts the natural realm directionally. God’s still-good-structurally creation is misdirected toward false gods and idols. When Christians receive God’s grace in salvation, they are liberated from their idolatry, liberated to shape their cultural activities toward Christ rather than toward false gods and idols. Their cultural activity is redirective.

What are the doctrinal building blocks for your view?

To be selective and concise to the extreme, the building blocks include:

Creation: one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christianity is its teaching that creational life is deeply and profoundly good. Unlike many pagan philosophers, biblically shaped Christians will not try to escape from their bodies or from the created realm. Salvation is not the liberation of the soul from the body. The creational realm, including our bodies, is created by God and it is good. At the time of creation, God instructed his imagers to “till the soil,” to make something out of his good creation, to bring out its hidden potentials. In other words, he instructed them to make culture. Culture-making and cultural engagement are constitutive of what it means to be human.

Fall: sin and evil do not have the power to make bad what God has made good. God’s good creation remains God’s good creation, even after the fall. God does not abrogate his cultural imperative in the aftermath of the fall. In fact, the cultural imperative is all the greater after the Fall because there is the added complexity of having to deal with the misdirection caused by sin.

Christ: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ. All things were created through him and consist in him. He saved us in order for us to bring all things under submission to his Lordship. And “all things” includes cultural things.

Redemption and New Creation: Christ’s salvation extends beyond his anthropos to his cosmos. Not only does he redeem his people from their slavery to sin, but he will redeem the cosmos which groans under the weight of sin. In other words, in the end, God will not carpet-bomb the created order. Instead, he will renew and restore the created order. He will make all things new rather than making all new things.

Should cultural engagement be viewed as part of the Christian mission, a part of every Christian’s vocation?

Absolutely. Every square inch of this universe is rife with potential for Christian mission. Every aspect of society and culture has been misdirected in some manner or another, and should be redirected toward Christ. Our cultural words and deeds should combine to form a powerful preview of the coming Kingdom, a Kingdom in which there will be no more sin, no more cultural misdirection of God’s good creation. For a Christian, all of life should be the argument of a thesis: Jesus is Lord! And the cultural aspects of life are no exception.

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