A Thought for Carl Trueman on the Transformational Discussion

Many Christians are skeptical about the transformational vision for culture

The transformational view simply recognizes that God is having his way in the world. That includes both our successes and our failures in our work in culture. Not only does this fact change our definition of success in the culture-war, but also it tells us that we must remain vigilant in the struggle, for how else will God work in and through our failures unless we are there to fail?

 

Having read Carl Trueman’s piece in The Aquila Report, “I Hope To Be Proved Wrong: Really, I Do,” it is clear to me that many Christians are skeptical about the transformational vision for culture. Trueman reflects:

The best way to prove me wrong, of course, is… to transform society. I would indeed love to be not only proved wrong but to be proved so wrong that I am shamed into never writing another word of cultural commentary (and I am sure many readers will join me in saying ‘Amen!’ to that). Living in a world where the worst that happens is that I receive critical pushback on a blog post is one thing; living in a world where Christians cannot rent space in order to worship on a Sunday, where millions of abortions take place every year, and where every ethical value I hold dear is routinely mocked or ignored or characterized as “hate” is quite another.  I know in which world I would rather live; thus, I look forward to the transformation of the latter into the former by my critics and truly wish them well in their endeavor.

My purpose here is not to prove Mr. Trueman wrong. In fact, he is quite right to lament the encroachment of secularism on American culture and the growing mockery of its values. What I would like to do, however, is to try to present the Christian, transformational position in a slightly different light (although I do not pretend to speak for everyone representing this school of thought). That is because I often feel that its critics do not truly understand what the position actually expects to achieve. A better way to voice that might be to say that they don’t entirely understand how the transformationist interprets historical stumbling blocks to the gospel. Of course, everyone who is criticized will say that they are misunderstood. Given that, I still want to offer a clarification that just may help to clear up a misunderstanding.

In recent years, what some consider to be the insolvency of the Christian mandate to transform the market place of ideas and to foster social progress has led many Christians to view the rhetoric of a transformational cultural theology as a pipe dream. However, my friend, John Frame, a long-time advocate for the “Christ, the transformer of culture” position, believes that setbacks for Christian cultural engagement are only ever God’s “apparent defeats” in history (Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 275). In other words, what we think of as a “defeat” is really God’s different way of working toward his ultimate victory over the world.

That God has sovereign control over the historical setbacks of the semi-eschatological age ought therefore to reorient our attitude toward historical development. It suggests that God is using even our failures at social and cultural reform to reconstitute the earth.

A life of obedience to the kingdom mission of Christ must recognize that the Spirit’s work in the world is not always linear and progressively upward, as humans define linear progress. The transformational view of Christianity and culture does not depend on or expect flourishing cultures and upward trends in society as the norm. It does not view God as a CEO of a company who must always produce profits in order for shareholders to see progress in order for there to be progress.

The transformational view simply recognizes that God is having his way in the world. That includes both our successes and our failures in our work in culture. Not only does this fact change our definition of success in the culture-war, but also it tells us that we must remain vigilant in the struggle, for how else will God work in and through our failures unless we are there to fail?

As I’ve said elsewhere, “The quiet attitude of many is that unless massive, wholesale change occurs across the board in American culture and the world, the Christian agenda is failing. Not only is this untrue, it is not even close to the truth . . . we are not charged with erecting a Christian utopia, but with representing the transcendent kingdom of God on earth that has the power to affect all of life” (Barber, Earth Restored, 134-35).

John Frame says something similar regarding the forward movement of the gospel in the world.

Some theologians present the semi-eschatological age as a time of suffering, pain and defeat. Others present it as a time of victory for the gospel. In fact both positions are correct. The history of the church has been full of suffering and persecution. But the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church, and often the worst persecutions have given rise to the strongest churches. And through history, Christian people have brought profound change to society, in the treatment of widows and orphans, the growth of learning, the development of democracy, to mention only a few areas (Frame, Systematic Theology, 96).

One might counter that Frame’s statement does not do enough to distinguish the transformational view from Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture in Paradox” position. But a big difference is that we think that God is at work NOW in the earth to restore all that was lost in the fall, both in man and in the rest of his creation. And that the primary vehicle through which God is doing his work is the Church. We don’t expect the process to be complete this side of heaven. Not by a long shot. Yet it remains a marvelous fact that at the cross God reconciled “all things” to Himself . . . whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). And that his children are privileged to bear the meaning of that message to all areas of life.

Yes, like Carl Trueman, we too struggle with the fact that we have not turned back the tide of abortions or stopped the redefinition of marriage. But we are strengthened by Paul’s encouragement. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

John Barber, Ph.D., is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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