Volume 42 - Issue 2
The ‘Only’ OptionBy Daniel Strange
If the global echo-chamber at Social Media HQ is to be believed, Public Theology has never had it so good. Unless you’ve spent the last six months in a cave, or cloistered away with some ecclesiastical order (pun intended), you won’t have been able to miss the response to Rod Dreher’s latest offering: The Benedict Option. My own feelings are as mixed as the opinions expressed via the rustling of electronic pages all over the evangelical world, but Dreher has got us talking. Even, if you haven’t read the book you will doubtless have read a review. What you may have missed, however, is the stirring it has caused in the UK mainstream media. ‘Keeping the Faith’ was the headline of April’s The Spectator magazine featuring an article by Dreher with a response by the gay atheist political journalist Matthew Parris entitled ‘Give me the Anglican option’. Parris, who is often critical of an anaemic Anglicanism, on this occasion critiques more separatist solutions like Dreher’s as ‘self-indulgence, a kind of petulance’ siding with the Church of England’s ‘often perplexed but ever hopeful struggle to carry on liking the century it’s in.’1 What a rare opportunity to engage the secular press on the subject of Christian cultural engagement.
However, the sheer volume of comment and opinion is pretty overwhelming and compounds, what in our community, have the potential of becoming wars and rumours of wars about culture wars – often with more heat than light. Wasn’t it simpler when all we had to do was plump for one of Niebuhr’s types in Christ and Culture? The world is bewildering enough without the bewildering array of ‘engagement options’ now open to us. So is it to be something like the Benedict Option? Is it to be ‘faithful presence’, or ‘subversive fulfilment’? Is it to be this or that ‘reading’ of Augustine, of Calvin, of Kuyper, of Carson, Keller and Piper? We all say we believe in inaugurated eschatology, but is it to be more ‘now’ than ‘not-yet’ or vice versa? Is so-called post-Christendom an opportunity to be relished, or a state of affairs to be mourned. Is it to be one kingdom, two kingdoms or (what some of my students call for) one-and-half kingdoms?
Now on the one hand, I don’t want to minimise the complexity and sweat-of-the-brow work needed here. What is becoming increasingly clear is that cultural engagement can’t be sorted out by a couple of proof texts, a blog post and some off-hand remarks. The danger of seeing complexity exclusively as a problem that can be easily overcome is that evangelical engagement takes a simplistic short cut that really misses the heart of the arguments in play. The discussion at hand calls us to draw upon a full gamut of disciplines within theological studies and beyond into history and the social sciences. The best responses are going to have to engage this complexity and offer a way to navigate positively through the cross currents of our time, not necessarily ’solve’ them. This reflects the cultural moment in which we exist.
On the other hand, however, there are times recently when I feel as if I’m so far down this rabbit-hole that I’m getting disorientated. Is there a way to be pulled back out to gain some perspective and to see the wood for the trees: to be re-orientated, whilst recognising there remains a healthy and necessary intra-familial debate?
I would like to suggest that our 500th birthday celebrations are just such an opportunity. A recent invitation to give a series of conference talks this summer on the five Solas of the Reformation would, I thought, bring some welcome distraction and relief from all this ‘culture stuff’. To my surprise, I’ve been struck by how relevant these slogans are to the whole cultural engagement topic giving us a distinctively Reformational ‘shape’ around which we can rally. These precious truths are touchstones and act as foundations, fences and flags. I’m not proposing that the solas offer us yet another methodological framework (which would just add to the confusion). Rather they are a useful test or filter through which we can run our existing frameworks. Amidst all the complexity and chatter surrounding our cultural engagement (and notwithstanding the crucial question of how the Reformation itself has been interpreted and (mis)appropriated by modern, late-modern and ‘secular’ narratives), I’ve been encouraged by being able to re-focus with a new clarity. The ‘Solas’ are our ‘only’ option.
Sola Scriptura impresses upon me the most fundamental epistemological asymmetry in matters of authority. I am to interpret the world through the Word and not the other way around. Certainly, I am to recognise God’s revelation of Himself in all that he has created, including common grace insights from the world of social sciences and cultural studies. But when methodologically I’m urged to ‘reverse the hermeneutical flow’, or when analyses drift towards a historicist reductionism (or any other kind of reductionism), I must strongly resist. We are just as ‘old and bleary-eyed’ now as when Calvin spoke of his ‘two books’ and the need for Scriptural spectacles to ‘disperse our dullness’.2 To understand my culture more, I need to understand the Bible more for it brings both sight and light. With it, and within trusting, charitable and critical ecclesial communities, we have in our hands the most powerful and perfect scalpel to dissect anything and diagnose anyone with the greatest of care and expertise.
Solus Christus measures my expectations as I engage with my culture and its social imaginary. My biblical anthropology tells me that we are creatures made in the imago Dei, made for transcendence. Although we supress the truth of our existence by arguing that ‘life under the sun’ is all that there is, we can never eradicate our sensus divinitatis, it always has and always will pop up in all that we fashion. We see this all over the place when we look hard enough. Analyses like that of Charles Taylor and Jamie Smith who speak of the secular being ‘haunted’ only confirm this. Despite the rhetoric, we know it’s never been easy to be a naturalist, materialist or nihilist.
However, we mustn’t get carried away. Yes, my culture and your culture will be dissatisfied with a ‘closed universe’ worldview and will always be looking for something else, searching for meaning and transcendence. But unless the search finds its fulfilment in the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures then it remains stuck in a world of idolatry. In Acts 17, the apostle Paul recognises the religiosity of the Athenians but still claims they are ignorant. The ‘seeking’ that Paul talks about is that of the blinded Cyclops who groped for Odysseus and his men. Against any form of vague sense of ‘transcendence’, ‘faith’, ‘spirituality’ and even ‘theism’ (together with cherished religious pluralism that inevitably follows), solus Christus reinforces the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ and the criticality of faith in Him alone. What encourages me and give me hope, is that for two thousand years those in the vanguard of culture have often been magnetically drawn back to Jesus and the questions he poses to humanity concerning who he is (themes of transcendence and immanence) and what he has done (themes of sacrifice and forgiveness in the cross and resurrection). In every cultural manifestation, there’s always a point of contact for us to connect and confront. Jesus Christ is relevant –yesterday, today and forever.
Taken together, Sola Gratia and sola fide make a wonderful couple that force me to take a step back from my theology of culture, and to ask myself some uncomfortable and radical questions, in the sense of returning to the roots of Reformation soteriology. Grace alone impresses on me the need to make some theological distinctions, which far from being irrelevant, abstract or abstruse, make all the difference in the world. So, I must distinguish between imputation and impartation; justification and sanctification; monergism and synergism. I might even want to go finer, distinguishing between definitive sanctification and positional sanctification.
And the reason for this inspection? I want my motivation for cultural engagement or cultural withdrawal to be gospel focused. Let me just get it out there: Christian traditions with synergistic and semi-Pelagian roots (like those of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) end up producing synergistic and semi-Pelagian fruit. We experience this bitter taste as follows. First, however much I want to say a hearty ‘Amen’ to the focus on cultivating intentional ecclesial communities, I should be worried and wary about any rationale for cultural withdrawal that put imperatives (e.g. the pursuit of holiness) before indicatives (our holiness in Christ). This order matters, for as someone once said, it’s the difference between a standing or falling church. Second, something doesn’t quite sit right when tonally what comes across is a real existential angst about the survival of the church, or even one’s personal faith. Underlying this lack of confidence and assurance can be sub-biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God which believes we need to take control of the wheel and do something urgently because God has somehow drifted off.
Sola Fide, reminds me of the instrumental cause through which I am united to Christ and receive all his benefits at once. These benefits include what Calvin calls the ‘double grace’ of first, our reconciliation to God through Christ’s blamelessness, ‘and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.’3 Far from instilling in me a quietist passivity (sometimes an accusation against sola fide), our regenerated new nature and living faith always spurs us to good works, works which start within our churches but which inexorably spill out into our communities and across our countries bringing individual, familial and societal blessings. And accompanying our good works comes an evangelistic zeal for we know that faith comes from hearing, and that without faith men and women are separated from Christ and lost forever. A decision to turn inward is to effectively turn our backs on what God might be doing around us and through us into the surrounding culture. Faith in Christ alone insists that the Christian must go, that the non-Christian must come, and that behind it all the sovereign Lord is at the helm protecting and preserving his Church militant.
Finally, soli Deo Gloria is the glue which sticks all the solas together and sums them all up: there’s nothing we bring, it’s all about the Triune God his excellencies, his fame, his renown in which he glorifies Himself first before manifesting his work in us and through us. Paradoxically this is both the easiest sola to relate to cultural engagement, and the sola that most clearly demonstrates some outstanding theological differences between Reformational siblings.
Now as a convinced cultural transformationalist, it’s hard not to get overly excited here and wax lyrical about the furthering of cultural mandate, the reform of society, the church as ‘political’ and the state as ‘religious,’ the importance of calling and vocation, and the taking of every thought captive for Christ. All the above seems pretty obvious to me but I know that not all of us are as convinced and excited about the prominence of such themes. So I’ll try and control myself and note the need to complement my passionate ‘SDG’ battle-cry with two challenges given to us by David Van Drunen (he of ‘two kingdoms’ fame), in his recent treatment of soli Deo Gloria.4 First, we must cultivate habits of prayer and worship in an age of distraction; second we must expel the culturally fashionable ugly sisters of narcissism and vain-glory by fostering reverent fear of the Lord. I take on board these edifying exhortations especially if it tempers what can become an overly adversarial, bordering on the aggressive, dismissal and attack on those with whom we disagree. While I believe there is much theological justification to talk about culture ‘wars’, soli Deo Gloria does prescribe some rules of engagement. In my activistic zeal for God’s glory, I must make sure my confidence is not understood as arrogance and entitlement. I want to win people for Christ, love my enemies, pray for those who (perhaps, maybe) persecute me. I want to contest the public square with boldness and win both the people and the issues.
In this anniversary year, let’s take the opportunity to take stock and return to these Reformation slogans as touchstones and foundational building blocks. Let’s make sure our own theology of culture and of cultural engagement is sola shaped and then let’s convince others that it is the ‘only’ option.
 Calvin, Institutes, 1.6.1.
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1.
 David VanDrunen, God’s Glory Alone (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
Daniel Strange is college director and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London and contributing editor of Themelios.
Other Articles in this Issue
The Preeminence of Knowledge in John Calvin’s Doctrine of Conversion and Its Influence Upon His Ministry in Genevaby Obbie Tyler Todd
John Calvin believed that the mind served as the “citadel” to the soul, commanding the seat of conversion whereby God first remedied the noetic effects of sin before liberating the bound will...