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Facing A Culture In Trouble

Is evangelism the best route to a just society, or does a just society hold the best prospect for personal evangelism?

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Enthusiasm for political engagement may be long overdue, yet there is a danger that evangelicals may duplicate the fallacy of the modernists a generation ago who sought what they considered an ideal society mainly through legislative imposition.

A secular elite today reduces distinctions of right from wrong to matters of cultural choice or simply personal preference. What is immoral in Missouri need not be immoral on Capitol Hill.

The very concept of universally shared truth and good is now even viewed by ethical relativists as oppressive. Human freedom is said to require autonomous moral decision. Anyone who insists that what was true in December must also be true in January is regarded as victimized by a mental block. Humans manufacture their own moral codes; every human self reigns as sovereign in the stipulation of right and wrong.

The desire for ethico-cultural renewal understandably fades away when moral and social distinctions are considered merely optional and are deprived of objective significance. There may indeed be changes of mores or of behavioral fashions, but no universally valid norm is admitted whereby the self or society can be evaluated as morally superior or inferior. Third-world dictatorships are considered "as good as" first-world democracies; if the category of "better" or "worse" retains any principled relevance, first-world nations are considered worse while the others are lauded for their distinctiveness.

One can readily understand how in a time like ours the partisans of enduring truth and morality long fervently for ethical and cultural recovery. For the consequences of personal and civic deterioration are costly: human life sooner or later loses any distinctive worth and meaning, in the absence of shared truth and morality civilization becomes impossible, and the history of humanity is exposed to dreadful divine judgment.

Yet not every proposal for coping with the high tide of immorality and violence, and for replacing it by a well-ordered view of life and culture, is as promising as it may at first appear.

The problems run deeper than the debate over whether it is humanity that needs first to be changed in the effort to transform culture, or whether the renewal of culture will in turn regenerate man. That question, to be sure, is an important one. It is today often stated in terms of the respective roles of social justice and evangelism. Is evangelism the best route to a just society? Or does a just society hold the best prospect for personal evangelism? Does Christian evangelism and theology legitimately expect the universal regeneration and sanctification of all humanity? Does the New Testament itself hold out the prospect of universal conversion?

An even deeper concern confronts us, that is, the rival ways in which human nature itself and its perfection are to be understood. The classical Greek and the Hebrew-Christian outlooks differ strikingly in this matter. The Greek philosophers spoke routinely of areté or human virtue. The Hebrews had no term corresponding to areté and the New Testament virtually ignores it, so that it has no really significant role in Scripture. It does occur in Phil 4:8 ("if there be any virtue") and in 2 Pt 1:5 ("add to your faith excellence").

If the early Church was aware that unconverted humans at times display qualities of goodness in view of conscience and reflections of the imago Dei that (albeit sullied) survived in fallen mankind, this is in undeniable ways distinguished nonetheless from speculative ethics. For Christian morality excluded the secular notion of autonomous virtue and it subsumed all such manifestations under the canopy of love and faith.

The New Testament catalogue of ethical excellencies does not embrace the Platonic cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, prudence and justice, which track rather through Aristotle and the Stoics. Subsequently these so-called virtues were adopted by Catholic theologians, who superimposed upon these the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

But the attempt to unite these two streams of ethical exposition -- speculative and revelatory -- was unsuccessful. Not only is autonomous virtue a conception unknown to the New Testament, but what the New Testament means by human goodness reflects a regenerate spirit and not an achievement of the sinful natural man. In the Graeco-Roman speculative tradition the moral life is thought to be realized by the gradual improvement and the achievement of mankind's unregenerate nature. In the Christian view, the moral life is attained by the crucifixion of the old or unregenerate nature and the birth of a new nature or character through the Holy Spirit.

Greek philosophers taught, moreover, that if one knows the truth or the good, he or she will pursue it. The human predicament was essentially a lack of information. Christianity, on the other hand, holds that man's predicament lies not simply in a lack of knowledge. Indeed, the Old Testament holds that humans are responsible for not performing what they know to be right, and not alone for areas of ignorance. Greek philosophy skirts around the fact of human sinfulness and the need of divine redemption; it ignores the reality of divine revelation and the absolute necessity of the new birth. Nothing in Plato or in the Stoics parallels the Pauline emphasis on the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22).

The aggressive involvement of American conservative Christians in the present culture war has stimulated talk of a new society and virtuous community that challenges the ongoing deterioration of contemporary culture. Enthusiasm for political engagement may be long overdue, yet there is a danger that evangelicals may duplicate the fallacy of the modernists a generation ago who sought what they considered an ideal society mainly through legislative imposition.

That is not to say that the political arena is unimportant, or that a theocracy is the ideal form of government, or that the role of democracy in the preservation of freedom should be ignored. But in the long run, democracy detached from Christian principles unwittingly deteriorates into chaos. The political arena deals with the enactment of laws, and these are indispensable to the preservation of society. But laws lose their power apart from the reality and revelation of God and man's moral character and good will. It is not fear of the magistrate's sword alone but especially faith, hope and love that will write God's law upon the heart of humanity.

There is a notable revival of interest in the classic Greek virtues as indispensable for cultural cohesion. The reshaping of a degenerate culture is thereby conditioned on the restoration of virtue. Catholic theology supplements the philosophical virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice -- which the classical ancient philosophers considered a human potential-by the New Testament moral excellencies of love, faith and hope.

The Bible does not deny the unregenerate self's possession of some knowledge of God. The general or universal revelation of God is given externally in nature and history and internally in and through the mind (Rom 1) and conscience (Rom 2) of humanity. But the unconverted person distorts and perverts that knowledge. A rebellious volition warps God's revelation. Fallen humanity is responsible and inexcusable, enslaved to sin and culpable. All of us lack the inherent capacity for spiritual and moral renewal. Only on the ground of the Redeemer's substitutionary life and death are we by faith mercifully forgiven and renewed.

The evangelical political objective is not the development of a new society, much as the great commission and the cultural mandate must be grasped together. The new society is already here, and more than in embryo; it is here in the regenerate church. Its task is to call itself and the rebellious world to the standards for which human life was created and by which the returning King will judge humanity and the nations, and to apply the creation ethic-reinforced by Scripture -- by way of example. It is to remind our planet that what is really true in Washington and Moscow and Bosnia is true because it is true in heaven and hell.

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Issue: "Evangelism: To the Ends of the Earth, Till the End of the Age" May/June 1995 Vol. 4 No. 3 Page number(s): 30-31

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