Evidence of Coming Together on Culture

In my last article, “Coming Together on Culture, Part 1: Theological Issues,” I said that, despite all the division over Christ and culture in the Christian church today, I perceived that some people in each camp were listening to the critiques and incrementally making revisions that moved them closer toward the other camps and positions. I highlighted the Transformationist and Two Kingdoms views, arguing that each model had some imbalances, but that many were recognizing them and incorporating insights from other models. Most of the critiques I gave the Transformationist side came from the Kuyperians themselves. (See James K. A. Smith’s recent book Desiring the Kingdom and the exchanges in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought.)

The article generated some resistance. Michael Goheen, a noted author from the Kuyperian movement, made a comment on the Redeemer City to City site. He said that he and co-author Craig Bartholomew (along with others), while solidly in the Transformationist camp, had “appropriated the work of Newbigin and would espouse a more missional Kuyperianism. That is social engagement is not first of all to change society—that may happen but . . . the goal . . . is to witness to the lordship of Christ over all areas of public life and to love our neighbor as we struggle against dehumanizing idolatry.”

Meanwhile, Michael Horton, a prominent Two Kingdoms (or 2K) theologian, posted a blog in response to mine, similarly resisting my depiction of the Two Kingdoms position. Although six years ago he wrote: “There is no difference between Christians and non-Christians with respect to their vocations . . . ” and “there is no ‘Christian politics’ or ‘Christian art’ or ‘Christian literature,’ any more than there is ‘Christian plumbing,'” he now writes: “Nothing in the 2K view entails that ‘Christians  do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian way’ or ‘that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.'” Then, after reminding us that no political movement can “transform the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ,” he added that nevertheless Christian-led social reforms were good things. Horton confirmed the importance of Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organization and organism, and finally expressed appreciation for the conversation.

These two writers, despite their valid concerns about caricature, seem to me to provide evidence that indeed there may be a “coming together on culture” among Christians. Goheen’s emphasis, still clearly within a Kuyperian model, has incorporated many insights and critiques from other sources and brought a balance to the whole “Christian worldview” way of engaging culture. And Horton’s comments either clarified or slightly modified the often-heard 2K remarks that there is no distinction between the way Christians and non-Christians work in the world. His gracious spirit shows that this conversation can go on and the various approaches can learn from each other.

Editors’ Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • jonathan

    Thank you, Tim Keller. In my mind, this is what the Gospel Coalition is all about.

  • Richard

    Thanks. I do appreciate your thoughts. I must confess that I find that one could look at your two posts and think:

    1. Showed 2 examples
    2. Received push back that 2 examples were unfair
    3. Claimed push backs showed you were right

    Of course the assumption would then be that you were not unfair. But I can’t deny the example of M. Horton and then showing how that appears as a difference in his message. At least in your view. I think that is a good push back. I am not sure I would draw the same conclusion as you in regards to his view changing, but I think it is a fair thought and worth pointing to. Thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts and engaging our minds in addressing the issue.

  • David

    Is it me, or is there an obvious lack of Scripture in this discussion? The pragmatism in Keller’s view seems wise on the surface, but is it sufficiently Biblical? This is a very important discussion as it has definitive bearing on the mission of Christ’s Church. We need to do less “exegesis” of pragmatism and culture and more exegesis of Scripture to come to our conclusions. (e.g., How is “neighbor” interpreted in the OT and NT?)

    If, as the visible Church, the proclamation of the gospel is delayed for the sake of pragmatism then we are off mission no matter how good our intention or how helpful our programs. The gospel is bad for business, so if we are after anything other than God’s goal(s), the gospel will suffer. The world might like us a little more and find working with us a possibility, but Scripture is clear about what this says about our loyalties. (James 4:4)

    In our decayed culture accommodation is more of a temptation than ever. Could it be that we are using this “cultural mandate” category to avoid persecution and suffering?

    • jonathan

      David, I’m not sure if you are responding to the original article, or perhaps this follow-up, or both. But is seems to me that Keller is simply making an observation: The two camps seem less polarized in some ways than they were a few years ago. Here he gives a little more evidence of his observation.

      As for your stated concerns, I would love your perspective on Paul’s “pragmatism” (I’m sure you would use a different term). But he became all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel. With Jews, he became like a Jew (observing various customs). With Gentiles he became like a Gentile (not observing customs). It seems to me that for the sake of the Gospel he was willing to work within various cultural frameworks. I wouldn’t accuse him therefore of delaying the Gospel or having misplaced loyalties.

      I would also love your perspective on foreign missions. Do we not go to great lengths to learn a foreign culture and do our best to present the Gospel within it? Wouldn’t ignoring the foreign cultural sensitivities produce stumbling blocks in front of the Gospel?

      Finally, is the incarnation of Christ itself not a visitation into the human culture? Didn’t Christ become like us in many ways? What does that concept mean for us as we seek to have a ministry to others?

      Whatever your take is on the questions I’ve posed, I would urge you to reconsider the harshness of your conclusions. I’ve listened to enough of Keller’s sermons to appreciate a deep exegetical process behind all of his stances. I also think it is off-base to suggest Keller, or anyone else, is simply trying to avoid persecution. Judging someone else’s motive is usually frought with error.

      • Susan


        But, as I believe David is pointing out, there should be the goal in sight of proclaiming the gospel, verbally. The scripture you sight points to this:

        1 Cor.9:19-22 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.

        “so that by all means I might save some” That’s the bottom line here for Paul. He walked into the world of the other, fit in comfortably, in order to be able to speak with them about Jesus so that they might come to repentance and salvation.

        Sometimes in this discussion I feel that there is so much emphasis on what we do in order to be received by others in culture that the ultimate goal of proclaiming Christ gets lost.

        Persecution is most apt to come when we proclaim (speak) the true gospel, not when we do good deeds in order to ‘demonstrate the reign of Christ’.

        I don’t think that David is judging Keller’s motives. He didn’t name Keller in that thought. He said ‘we’. Jumping to conclusions and thus accusing someone is also ‘fraught with error’ ;-)

        • David

          That’s right Susan. Sorry for any confusion, I am responding to the conversation as a whole.

          I think an appropriate amount of contextualization is necessary, but when we over-contextualize it means that we are attempting to earn the wrong kind of favor over a prolonged period of time as to not make the gospel as offensive. We want to be SURE that people know we “love” them when we tell them they are going to hell without repentance and faith in Christ. I would argue that the worst sort of oppression and hatred is to hold back the power to save in order to save face.

          In Acts 17, Paul used culture (a poem about Zeus) to clear the way for an immediate proclamation of the gospel. Paul became all things to all men, yet not in terms of assimilation but ‘relatability’, and not in the sense that strict missional ministries prolong the proclamation to emphasize ‘relatability’ but as a way to simply clear out stumbling blocks so that the only potential stumbling block is the gospel itself.

          My point is that the error we make in a society that is in the last stage of moral decay is to not see the line between “becoming all things to all men” and “world-spirit accommodation” (Schaeffer). The immediate proclamation of the gospel will yield cultural benefits, but this is not to be confused with a cultural mandate that espouses Christ’s “Kingdom Now” in a physical sense (the disciples and apostles were always making this mistake; even at Christ’s ascension! [Acts 1:6] via Machen) and these benefits are not to share priority with the building of the Spiritual Kingdom, which will result in a physical Earthly Dominion. This discussion is primarily asking the question whether these cultural benefits are to be a focus of the Church’s mission.

          You are correct, I am not accusing Keller of this but am guilty of it myself. Does the world hate us? Our first response is to soften the meaning of hate or relegate that hatred to a fringe group… and the subtle escape from persecution begins. I have worked closely with Missional Church communities and in my experience the emphasis on a cultural mandate does come down to wanting to be accepted and avoid persecution… we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. Seeker sensitive just put on priestly robes.

          • David

            Again, I am making this judgment based on my own experience and don’t want to paint this view with too broad a brush. Based on my observation during my involvement with these types of communities, I am simply making the point that our desire to avoid persecution on the cultural mandate side is an important consideration. It is a strong but subtle temptation that hits the front lines.

  • http://www.ballykeel.net Marty

    I must say I find Tim’s post edifying and helpful. With respect to the above discussion, I might have thought “Generous Justice” articulates a clear exposition of who our neighbour is. (Sorry for the UK spelling there!)

    • David

      Correct Marty. My point was that I think it would beneficial to bring that part of the discussion to a forum like this. A “contextualization” perhaps for those who don’t read books. ;) Cheers.

  • http://www.redeemer.com Tim Keller

    Hi All —

    Thanks for your thoughts. On the question of the Biblical underpinnings for all this culture talk–I’d of course recommend Don Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited. It’s one of the few books on the Christ-Culture issue that does substantial Biblical reflection. Don’s work in that book has influenced my thinking a lot, since he makes the case that several of the traditional Christ-culture models have Biblical support, and therefore we shouldn’t be dogmatic and insist that only one of them is always the right one.

    • Susan

      Thanks, Tim. I would like to see what Carson has to say. BTW, I love your talk on Exodus 14 and the gospel. I think I’ve listened to it three times now!

    • David

      Thanks Tim. Good recommendation.

      • http://www.ballykeel.net Marty

        And I wouldn’t argue with the Don!!

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    Hmmm, I hope I’m not being polarizing here, because I appreciate where Keller is looking for the bridge. But I don’t think Horton’s before and after comments contradict each other. If you have read his many books that are saturated with Scripture, and incorporate the whole Christ and culture topic quite a bit, you would see the context a bit clearer. While there is no such thing as “Christian” plumbing, or redeeming pluming for Christ, he very much encourages Christians to be good, Christian plumbers who can work well alongside non-Christian plumbers (who might be even better at plumbing than them). Like Dorothy Sayers encouraged in her essay on Work, the first thing that a Christian who is a plumber would want to think about is the quality of their plumbing. And that is good. That doesn’t take away from the fact that we are to be salt and light unto the world. I could go on about Christ’s redemptive rule over his church but I will stop here to be brief. I do want to add that the 2Kers have already been recognizing their agreement some of w/Kuyper’s distinctions (quite happily).

  • Sean McCausland

    Hello Dr Keller,

    Are you familiar with Dr John Frame’s new book “Escondido Theology” (where apparently he goes so far as to say that the 2K view is unbiblical)? If so, I’d be interested to know if you’ve read it and would be willing to provide some kind of response to it.

    Thanks for your ministry. I finished “Counterfeit Gods” yesterday and was very helped (and convicted!) by it.

    In Christ,
    Sean McCausland

  • http://www.redeemer.com Tim Keller

    Hi Aimee —

    Yes, 2K folk often say the Christians are distinct internally in their motivations for work (they work for God’s glory not their own) but Christians are not distinct from non-Christians externally in their forms of work. (David VanDrunen says this at the end of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms.)

    It is likely true that there is no difference between Christians and non-Christians in the actual practice of plumbing, but can we say this about all forms of work? Can we say that in the practice of managing workers there will be no difference between overseers who believe all human beings are in the image of God and overseers who, because of a non-Christian world-view, don’t believe that, believe some races are sub-human? (Aristotle said some races deserve to be slaves–and that was based on his understanding of human nature.)

    In history we see that Christian beliefs have made a difference in how people practice many kinds of work–not just in their internal motives but through their external practice.

    That’s why I think you shouldn’t insist that every kind of work-practice is done differently by Christians–nor should you insist that no kind of work-practice is done differently by Christians and non-Christians.

    • Daniel F. Wells

      Dr. Keller,

      Thanks for the post and discussion. I essentially agree with you and hope that more commonality is being found on the issue of Christ and Culture.

      Have you read Dr. James Anderson’s (Philosophy prof at RTS-Charlotte) critique of VanDrunen’s book? Anderson, a Framean on these issues, makes a good point regarding an inconsistency in the 2K view currently espoused by some. Though, I would agree with Carson (and ultimately Luther), that the Bible gives some credence to the notion of 2K, but perhaps not in the exact form espoused by Escondido.


  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    Tim, I do see your point and there several ways that 2K address that issue. One is the Natural Law that is written on everyone’s hearts, as pertains to justice. There are many non-believers who put Christians to shame with their morality in management issues, or fighting for a good cause such as poor working conditions, etc. I think the thrust in the 2K argument is not that Christians should not be distinct in glorifying Christ in their work, but that much of the work itself (i.e. plumbing) is not something that is being redeemed. This is important for me as a housewife, because I get invited to all kinds of activities such as so-called Christian yoga, Christian soccer, etc. We don’t need our own version of secular activities. My kids can just enjoy softball for softball. As Christians, we recognize that we are liberated to serve our neighbor out of love and gratitude for the grace we have been given, not because we are trying to earn a righteousness in doing it. I think that the 2K position gets misunderstood and misrepresented.
    And I agree with you that there are some vocations where the Christian distinction is helpful, as long as it actually follows orthodox doctrine–say, in Christian publishing and schooling. In these fields, adding the “Christian” prefix, per say, is describing the content of the work. But we need to make the distinction that Christ is redeeming a people for himself, and that the world will not be “Christianized” until we live on the new heavens and the new earth. Then there will be no secular/sacred distinction in our work–everything will be holy.
    I hope my comments do not come off in any way as disrespectful. I have read several of your books, and I am a huge fan of your Smashing Idols series. I have them downloaded and have listened to them at least three times. My husband and I are currently reading through The Meaning of Marriage and are greatly blessed by it. Thank you for responding to my comment.

  • http://www.cosmiceye.wordpress.com Nelson Kloosterman

    Perhaps Dr. Keller’s irenicism can assist in bringing about the greater clarity that is still needed–see http://cosmiceye.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/oiling-the-hinge-the-third-way-gains-traction/

  • http://www.gospelgrace.net/ Luma

    Pastor Keller,

    I’ve been a reader here at The Gospel Coalition but have never commented before. It seems I’ve been a Kuyperian Transformationist in practice but I’ve never deliberately thought through the issues. Being in a particular corner of the Reformed Presbyterian world, I’ve heard the words “Christian Worldview” thrown around for some years now, and I’ve somehow gotten the impression that 2K was “SO wrong.” I’m ashamed to say I didn’t ask questions (not even from my husband, until recently), didn’t try to seek out the matter for myself, and in general have been “asleep at the wheel” of my mind so to speak. Coming out of feminism I swung hard and far to the other end of the spectrum, to a place I thought was “holy” and “safe” only to realize that it was the place of fear and moralism. I don’t want to go on here, but suffice it to say that by the grace of God my husband and I have come out of what I call “Gospel Amnesia.” Through the mercies of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we have experienced a renaissance of the soul over the past two years. The first of the rays of light came through reading “Prodigal God.”

    Thank you for your first post which moved me to start having some conversations with my husband about the Transformationist versus Two Kingdoms debate. Thank you for your recommendation of “Christ and Culture” I’m going to order that today and start digging. And many thanks to you and Don Carson for The Gospel Coalition. And yes, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m writing a book titled “Gospel Amnesia” I don’t want to live in fear ever again.

    In Christ,
    Luma Simms

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