This is the final post in the series entitled “A Middle Way.” For an introduction on fundamentalism and liberalism, refer to this post. For an overview of their interaction with the Gospel, refer to this post. For an overview of their interaction with the society, refer to the previous post.
Now, in light of these two views on cultural engagement, how do Christians engage culture today?
A Middle Way?
It is often easy to focus more on the contrasts of two movements and point out how they cannot come together, especially with these two movements. However, there is more commonality in these movements than most people realize.
While both sides have merits to their understanding of engaging culture, there is a better path to engage culture than setting these two sides as dichotomies. Forester highlights that “while both stories highlight facts that are true, neither story is true as a story” (39). In fact, he goes as far to say that “the problem wasn’t all on the liberal side. … the evangelical response to the crisis was [also] inadequate” (51).
In short, the fundamentalists’ emphasis on preaching the Gospel and the liberal emphasis on doing good works are both good, but they are not good when they are exclusive of each other.
Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice, seeks to balance out the two sides by pointing out the different emphases, but the same understanding of faith, in the New Testament. He writes that “while a sinner can get into relationship with God by only faith (Paul), the ultimate proof that you have saving faith is the changed life that true faith inevitably produces (James)” (Keller 98).
For the New Testament writers, preaching the gospel and doing good works were not supposed to be mutually exclusive. This understanding was even found in the Old Testament: “Circumcision was the external sign that a family had come into a covenant relationship with God. … Meeting the needs of the orphan, the widow, and the poor immigrant was a sign that the Israelites’ relationship with God was not just formal and external but internal as well” (Keller 93).
For the Old Testament church, public proclamation and works went hand and hand.
Finally, Jesus also puts gospel proclamation and doing good works on the same level. In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus convicts his listeners of their sin, as well as emphasizing caring for those in need (Keller 65).
Ultimately, fundamentalists and liberals are concerned about people. Both sides take this concern seriously (Forester 17). However, they took it to the exclusion of benefiting from the other side’s works (Forester 34).
All human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–28). Therefore, humans deserve both the benefit of the preaching of the gospel and good works. Essentially, Christians in this state of being redeemed but living in a broken word, are sojourners leading other sojourners with the power of the Holy Spirit to the new creation (Wheeler 528ff).
A Charted Path
So, the question must be asked: what does this relationship look like?
While this could be a topic of its own, there are several guidelines that can be used to help Christians engage culture better.
Thabiti Anyabwile, in light of the racial tensions in the United States, offers several ideas of how Christians can better engage in that issue. He writes that Christians should be concerned with telling the truth, forgiving, expressing contrition, sticking together, and pursuing righteousness and holiness (Reconciliation Looks Like …).
Jared Wilson, in a commentary on Hebrews 6, examines whether Christians need to move on from the gospel. In short, he concludes that Christians should not move on from the gospel, but to grow in their understanding of Christ (Does Hebrew 6 Teach that We Should Move on from the Gospel?).
Finally, Kevin DeYoung highlights that all Christians, no matter their doctrinal differences, are to love one another (and this includes their non-Christian neighbors) (Eleven Ways Christians Can Love One Another).
Cultural engagement is a multi-faceted problem that warrants serious, thoughtful consideration. The church, by and large, has always been concerned with cultural engagement from Augustine in his magnum opus work The City of God, to H. Richard Niebuhr as he visited approaches related to cultural engagement, and more recently Francis Schaffer at Covenant Theological Seminary encouraging Christians to engage culture more thoughtfully.
In more recent history, the church has been split by two factions of cultural engagement.
One the one hand, the liberals saw their duty to engage culture through their good works.
On the other hand, the fundamentalists saw their duty to engage culture through their preaching of the gospel.
This dichotomy put the church in a precarious position. Good works are not to be done apart from the gospel. The preaching of the gospel is not to be done apart from good works.
In essence, Christians today must value their preaching and works together. While diving into the practical implications on this would be another work in and of itself, one thing is for sure: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV).
The preaching of the gospel and helping the world are not exclusive.
This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Michael Freeman in Christian Perspectives: Sin & Culture at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School. It has been modified from its original version. This paper also appears in The Front Porch magazine, published by The Row House in an abridged version.
- Anyabwile, Thabiti. Reconciliation Looks Like . . . 16 May 2018. 22 March 2019.
- DeYoung, Kevin. Eleven Ways Christians Can Love One Another. 13 November 2018. 22 March 2019. <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/eleven-ways-christians-can-love-one-another/>.
- Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
- Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.
- Wheeler, Nathan. “”For a Holy Priesthood”: A Petrine Model for Evangelical Cultural Engagement.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 1 September 2016: 523-39.
- Wilson, Jared. Does Hebrew 6 Teach that We Should Move On from the Gospel? 14 March 2019. 22 March 2019