Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christ & Culture Revisted Review: Reviewd

Jason Stellman complained that I picked on a "joke" post of his and not his more substantive material. I take it that he places his review of D.A. Carson's recent book Christ & Culture in the latter category.

Stellman’s review1 of Carson’s book2 begins with the obligatory summary of the book’s structure, a brief (very brief!) tour of part of the ground covered in the book, the usual, obligatory lauding of the author on some points (e.g., “I wholeheartedly agree with Carson here,” or “Carson is right to point out,” or “I applaud” etc.,), and the obligatory “critique.” There’s not too much to comment on the overview aspects of the review (though I could quibble with some things even here), so I’ll just look at Stellman’s “obligatory critique” of Carson.

Stellman hits on one of Carson’s comments about Stellman’s old WSCAL prof, Darryl Hart. Carson deems approaches to “Christ and culture” like those of Hart, “minimalist.” Stellman sums up Carson and then offers his critique. I’ll quote him at length to provide all the necessary context and to ensure proper representation of Stellman’s critique:

Carson argues that if all these authors were doing were offering a warning against utopianism, then all would be well. But such pessimism "fail[s] to see the temporally good things we can do to improve and even transform social structures" (217-18, emphasis original). Listing examples such as abolishing slavery, curing disease, and reducing sex traffic, Carson maintains that "in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city...is part of our responsibility as God's redeemed people in this time of tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet.'"

While I would concur that "it is unwise to speak of 'redeeming culture'" (217), I find Carson's antidote to minimalism too, well, maximalist. The assumption seems to be that the "we" who desire to accomplish such obviously welcome goals as ending slavery and curing disease must be "we Christians." What Carson overlooks is the fact that history is filled with examples of sinners who disliked cancer, as well as with saints who defended slavery. In other words, one does not need to affirm Chalcedonian Christology in order to work toward the curing of disease, nor have all who affirmed that Christology wanted slavery to end. This idea-that believers have a monopoly on morality, that cultural clean-up is a kingdom responsibility, and that Scripture furnishes the saints with a clear idea of what godly society would look like-seems to ignore both the fact that the Bible's authority is limited to those loci it actually addresses clearly and that all people share the imago Dei, as well a common basis for morality provided by the works of God's law written on our hearts. In a word, pagans are often more horizontally good and the pious horizontally bad than we usually care to admit.
It is my opinion that Stellman just falls back on the all-too-common two kingdom caricaturing of their opponents, hits us with some two kingdom buzzwords, attacks non-existent positions (or, if they’re existent, they’re held by ignorant-but-well-meaning Christians), and generally fumbles the book review football. Here’s how:

1. I’m unsure it’s proper to say Carson is offering an “antidote” to minimalism. As anyone who has read the book will be aware, Carson leaves a lot of room open for relationships between Christ and culture. As Carson repeatedly makes clear, some relationships may work in some kinds of cultures while those same ones will not work in other cultures. Carson would not recommend any one response to culture in any and all cultures.

2. Apropos (1), even Stellman recognizes that Carson isn’t settling on any solid “antidotes” or “approaches” to Christ and culture. Says Stellman, “Still, I wish that, when all was said and done, he had landed upon more terra firma rather than leaving the reader with his feet planted in midair.”

3. The “we” is the same “we” Hart mentions. The question is about how Christians should act in various cultural settings. I find nothing objectionable about this. It’s the same “we” sophisticated two kingdom advocate David VanDrunen talks about. So VanDrunen:

We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence. The peace and prosperity of our society, not to mention our personal peace and prosperity, depend on it. And the political sphere certainly is one of the institutions of culture which will make its indelible stamp on the peace and prosperity of the society. Christians therefore should have an interest in the political process when their form of government allows it, as ours does. To turn our backs on politics would mean to turn our backs in part to the command of God to seek the peace and prosperity of our nation. We may debate amongst ourselves which political positions to promote and how much emphasis should be given to the political process, but the interest and involvement in politics which we see among the "religious right" is in itself a good thing. (source, emphasis mine)
4. Stellman then takes us on an epic adventure of non sequiturs.

a) Nowhere does Carson even remotely imply that it is “only we” who engage in some structure transforming activities.

b) In fact, he implies the contrary. As anyone who’s read the book knows, Carson engages in some lengthy and detailed analysis of just what “culture” means. Carson’s working definition of culture is, following Geertz. “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions, expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about life and attitudes towards life” (Carson, 85). Carson claims, repeatedly, that there will be more or less agreement between cultures at various times and places, given various phenomena. So, “the locus of a particular culture is variable and may overlap with other cultures…” (ibid). At various places Carson “underscore[s] the fact that [various cultures] may embrace many shared cultural values” (Carson, 119). And again, “… we manage to form ‘co-belligerencies’ on some strategic issues” (Carson, 196).

c) Stellman claims that Carson “overlooks” the fact that some non-Christians have done good while some “Christians” have had better moments. But Carson says the opposite in many places. One example might be: “Of course, in the richness of God’s common grace, there are governors who genuinely have a servant’s heart, governors who are not unduly corrupted by power. Sadly, there are ecclesiastical leaders who take their cue as to what leadership is from the surrounding world, who sell their souls for pomp, flattery, and lust for ever-increasing manipulative control” (Carson, 168). And one of Carson’s main points, “the non-negotiables” of biblical theology, directly contradict this claim. Carson admits in many places that the biblical theological category of the fall entails that Christians manage to distort even the best things (e.g., p.74, also cf. pp. 45-49).

d) So, to claim that Carson even remotely implies that one needs to “affirm Chalcedonian Christology in order to” do “horizontal goods” is so far from a charitable reading of Carson that only the desire to get off one’s “talking points” can account for this massively distorted missive. Indeed, Stellmen speaks of the idea “that believers have a monopoly on morality,” yet doesn’t tell us who’s idea this is. Surely he’s not claiming that Carson believes this! But then who?

“Before entering the discussion about moral reality, I must make a couple things quite clear. First, I am not discussing the idea that one must believe in God in order to be a moral person. (Ganssle, Thinking About God, p.86).

"The question here is not: 'Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?' I am not claiming that we must" (Craig, God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, p.18).

“In fact, I claimed that there is a sense in which the atheist most certainly can be moral (the minimalist sense agreed to by both sides). In fact, in this sense, many atheists may be more moral than Christians.” (Paul Manata! See here)

These are just some quotes on hand at the moment. I have seen theists of the most “evangelical, “right wing” variety, claim that atheists can be just as moral, if not more so, than Christians (only in the sense of civic goodness). Now, it is true that I once heard an old grandma claim that all non-Christians were moral monsters. Is that who Stellman is attacking?

e) Stellman gives the impression that Carson is claiming that “Scripture furnishes the saints with a clear idea of what godly society would look like.” But Carson doesn’t give that impression, not at all. “Initially more impressive is the insistence by some writers that Romans 13 does not so much tell believers how to govern well as how to be governed. In the flow of Paul’s argument, that insight is fundamentally right" ( Carson, 161, emphasis mine).

f) Apropos (e), if Stellman wishes to scale back his claim and say that Carson gives the impression that Scripture tells us some things about what a godly society looks like, clear or unclear, then he would be correct. So Carson again, “Nevertheless, in making his argument, Paul tells us at least a little of what he thinks good government looks like” (ibid, emphasis mine). But if Stellman moves the goal post to this weaker claim, or says that’s what he originally intended, he doesn’t let the reader know that Carson defends this claim in a few places, most directly on pages 161-173.

g) Stellman then makes the ridiculous claim that Carson “seems to ignore both the fact that the Bible's authority is limited to those loci it actually addresses clearly and that all people share the imago Dei, as well a common basis for morality provided by the works of God's law written on our hearts.” I have a few points in response:

i) Of course a scholar of Carson’s stature doesn’t ignore the imago dei or the law written on the heart. So, again (!), Carson: “…all human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), … and this image is “the dignity of human beings” (Carson, p.57, 136, also see pp. 45-47, 49, 56-58, 87, 120, 136, 138, 193, 207). Of course Carson doesn’t discuss what “grounds” ethical norms, nor does he need to! For Christ & Culture isn’t a book on metaethics.

ii) It is also nothing but stacking the deck in your favor when you demand that people can only appeal to what the Bible “clearly” addresses. Is that “clearly addressed” in the Bible? And, often what is “clearly addressed” is in the eye of the beholder.

iii) The Bible’s authority pertains to what the confession says: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6). Is Stellman meaning to say that we should keep the insights of Scripture out of our ethical decision making processes? If so, that is a very radical position. Even staunch two kingdom advocate David VanDrunen wouldn’t say that. So VanDrunen,

Making Bioethics Decisions
Before turning to a specific bioethics issue, it is helpful first to consider some general guidelines. When confronting difficult bioethics decisions, Christians initially must strive to identify relevant theological truths. Though Scripture does not speak specifically about contemporary bioethics, its teaching does have important implications for it. (source)
One of VanDrunen’s relevant theological truths is that the Bible teaches some form of anthropological dualism. But is this clear? I certainly think so, but your Christian constitutionalist will not agree (so Corcoran, Merricks, etc). Moreover, all the best scientists agree that “we have no more need” to posit a soul. That’s an outdated picture of the world. And men like Stellman are well-known for their attacks on “fundies” who hold to an “out dated” young earth creationism. Yet they suddenly get all backwoods and toothless when it comes to a “soul.”

5. For these reasons, I find Stellman’s review underwhelming. I find it as symptomatic of more fundamental problems. For example, expending all your energies on ignorant-but-well-meaning Christians will have a negative effect when you decide to “play with the big boys,” like Carson. I find many internet two kingdom proponents want to move as quick as they can to use two kingdom buzz words and pejoratives whereby they can pontificate about all the evils resulting from abandoning two kingdom theology. The basic case for two kingdom theology, as I understand it, is fairly sound. But it seems as if proponents aren’t satisfied with this basic case and are seeking more “outrageous” attempts to prove its merits. If so, they have fallen into the trappings their opponents like Osteen have fallen into. Proving two kingdoms by sensationalistic and, frankly, dishonest tactics, is not what two kingdoms needs right now. I propose a more sober minded approach to the Christian public. A more scholarly approach. If not, then they have no one to complain to but themselves when the majority of Christians (rightly or wrongly) reject their teachings because it is delivered with, in my honest opinion, a bit of a haughty kind of presumptuous spirit.

1 Jason J. Stellman, “Christ & Culture Revisited" by D. A. Carson, in "Beyond Nostalgia: The Risk of Orthodoxy" Sept./Oct. Vol. 17 No. 5 2008 Pages 50-51

2 D.A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, 2008.


  1. Thanks Paul for this fresh perspective. As I mentioned to you over the phone, I have not read Carson' book in its entirety, but I did read his section on the two kingdoms and was not convinced by what he said. All he said was that, if unchecked,two kingdoms *could* lead to a kind of Anabaptist retreatism from culture. But he also said that transformationalism *could* lead to the social gospel.

    So, I'm not even sure if Carson meant it as a critique per se, but perhaps rather as a concern. At this point, I need to formulate better arguments against transformationalism, but as a two kingdoms proponent, I think what I have is concerns as well at this point.

    Merry Christmas!

  2. Josh,

    Carson did with two kingdoms what he did with everything else; and, what seemed to me, one of his primary purposes in the book was to, as Dever said, "explode egregious reductionisms".

    He is right to point out problems in both maximalist and minimalist approaches to Christ and culture. He is right to show that there is often more grey than we'd like to think. That things are a bit more detailed than our microwave mindset would like.

    I find his statement on p. 185 to be a good summary of what he's doing: "But what we need is a little more care in trying to find out what people really believe and how they really act, and a little less guilt by association and wild extrapolation."

    Indeed, when Stellman acted as if Carson's book faltered because it didn't offer a terra firma, I have to wonder how carefully he read Carson. That wasn't Carson's aim, at all. To be looking for cognitive rest on a terra firma seems to me like you haven't quite "got" the difficulties and subtleties involved in our awkeward position as dual citizens and the varied warp and woof of "cultures."

    I'd also say that you need to define what is meant by "transformationalism" because that VanDrunen quote I gave could be considered as "transformationalist" in a few ways. Transformation is a change. VanDrunen said we should try to change, or at least blunt the progress of, various immoral activities. Seems to me that when "2kers" do "transforming" its called "seeking the peace of the city" and when, say, "theonomists" do "transforming" it's called "confusing law and gospel."

    That's like what Bertrand Russell told us about how language can be used:

    "I am firm. You are obstinate. He is positively pig-headed."

  3. It's good to see careful interaction with 2k theology. I hope That will continue.