Thursday, July 17, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 5)

If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in some time, it’s because I have been camping with my family. Good times.

I finished chapter 5 of D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited today—it’s called “Church and State.” In this section Carson seeks to describe the church’s proper relationship to the state and concludes that the relationship will look different in different contexts.

True to his method of integrating biblical theology to the question of Christ’s relationship to culture, Carson begins by asking what the Scriptures teach us about the relationship between church and state. Carson notes that we need to be careful to distinguish between church as an institution and church as a collection of individual Christians. Even though the institutional church may not have a role in influencing the state, individual Christians certainly will. Further, we can’t discount the differences between current notions of “the state” with what existed during Paul’s day. The Roman Empire was hostile to Christianity, while many states today are sympathetic to it. Carson says that in democratic societies individual Christians have a responsibility to participate in the government according to their beliefs, even if the institutional church remains on the sidelines.

Having discussed the biblical notions of “church” and “state,” Carson explains how individual Christians might respond to modern states. He argues that different states require different responses. First, Carson says that Christians should generally be loyal to the state, based on Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar” and Paul’s teaching on the state in Romans 13. However, the early Christian message was also “Jesus is Lord” in the sense that “Caesar is not.” Caesar’s power was always seen as relegated power, so civil disobedience was called for when Caesar’s decrees went against God. Carson notes that a Christian’s response to a Muslim state hostile to the Gospel might look different than his or her response to a state that is sympathetic to it. In the first context, the Christian says “Jesus is Lord” and continues to live out the faith amidst persecution. In the other, he or she might say “render unto Caesar” as he or she submits to the state.

Finally, Carson argues that “Separation of Church and State” in America was never meant to keep Christians from forming public policy, but to keep the state from establishing a church. Carson says that the church’s involvement as an institution in politics might violate the spirit of the First Amendment, but that Christians voting their faith is the same as anyone else voting their beliefs. Democracy by definition means people pushing their agendas—whether they be secular, Muslim, or Christian.

Carson summarizes that while Christians wait for God to establish His rule on earth, “we engage in the proclamation of the good news about Jesus in word and deed and remember that he himself taught us that Caesar has a sphere, under God, that is to be respected, an authority that is to be obeyed.” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2008].)

Carson’s views on church and state are pretty straightforward and non-controversial. He rightly notes some inconsistencies in Niebuhr’s paradigm and shows that there is no “one solution.” However, he merely touched on some issues that run deeper than he cared to elaborate (this is not to say he hasn’t thought about these issues, just that he didn’t explore them in this work).

First, he mentions the state’s willingness to sponsor faith-based humanitarian work when their goals align with those of the state and where “the message” is not proclaimed. I am always on the lookout for opportunities for our church to get involved in the community, and I am especially interested in those programs that are not religions. But non-religious humanitarian organizations are hard to find. It seems that most of the work being done in the Pacific Northwest is being done by faith-based organizations—many of which receive state money. However, these organizations are prohibited from preaching a message. So, if someone wants to start a homeless shelter or food bank, they can get some government help, but if they require people to sit through a sermon to get food, they lose their funding.

This makes me wonder about how our culture naively separates beliefs from actions. If I am out volunteering at a food bank, I am doing so solely because of my beliefs. In fact, I would argue that my actions communicate my beliefs more than my words do. So, even if I am not “preaching a message,” I am still preaching a message. If the state is so concerned about taking care of the poor, why would they be against the preaching of a message that says, “Go and do likewise”? If I went to a food bank, I would want to know what it was that drove the volunteers at that food bank to do what they do. Why is the state afraid of the message?

The other question that Carson’s book raised to me was the early church’s attitude toward the state. Sure, Jesus and Paul taught that we should be submissive, but was this just a practical concession? N.T. Wright and others seem to think that the message of the church was “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” Perhaps the command to “submit” to the government was more about the means of building the kingdom—i.e. don’t be like the zealots who use violence. I want to study this more—what was Jesus’ attitude toward the state?


Scott barger said...

Hey Matt, is this book a reworking of the book by H. Richard Niebuhr? I am assuming it is. If so, I'm definitely picking up a copy. BTW, thanks for the blog comments.

Matt said...

The title of the book would lead you to think that it is a reworking of Niebuhr's book (which is why I bought it), but Carson is doing something different.

Niebuhr sought to describe all of the ways various traditions relate Christ to culture and to lay out their strengths and weaknesses. Carson starts with (evangelical) biblical theology and then proceeds to explain how Christ relates to culture.

Niebuhr's work definitley suffered from a lack of a clear biblical theology. By avoiding biblical theology, he was able to address a spectrum of traditions. At the same time, he "wasted" a lot of ink on traditions that probably should not be considered "Christian." (Carson shows how his "Christ of culture" is inconsistent with the biblical narrative, etc.)

But Carson's biblical theology is textbook American evangelical, and he leaves no room for other traditions. This is a weakness of his work. Niebuhr's net may have been too wide, but Carson's is too narrow.