Some Good Cheese

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My friend Sean Lucas has written two terrific blog entries (here and here) in response to the conversation Carl and I have been having over fundamentalism and antithesis over here at Ref21 (See my original piece, Carl's cheesy reply, and my cheese-praising rejoinder). I think Sean has crystallized some important ideas and he has advanced our conversation significantly. I would recommend that you read Sean’s posts and then, if you are interested, I have some further reflections here:

First of all, I am the farthest thing from an expert on American fundamentalism. Carl and Sean have much more knowledge and insight than I do, and I appreciate their reflections. I was not raised in fundamentalism (although my wife was) and I don’t have a lot of history with fundamentalists (and therefore no axe to grind). My original piece that spawned all this was not intended as a definitive statement on Bob Jones fundamentalists, but was simply a comment on my recent interactions and appreciation, especially for the way the fundamentalists perpetuate a biblical idea of antithesis.

What especially intrigued me about Sean’s response was his breakdown of the evangelical world into those who stress the antithesis and those who stress common grace. I think that is a pretty accurate mapping not only of evangelicalism but also of the Reformed world. Sean argues that we are almost always going to lean in the direction of one of these at the expense of the other, mainly due to our experiences and background. I agree. But I would respond that this does not mean that the two have to be in violent opposition. I think most of us have something of both in our ministry orientation, but one of them will be dominant. Some of us will be willing to find avenues for grace in the world, but be restrained by our conviction that the darkness is opposed to the light (see the Gospel of John for this conviction). Others of us will determine to stand solidly on the rock against the winds of the world, but are deeply motivated by a desire to reach those who are building on sand (see the Gospel of Matthew for this analogy). The former, by the way, is what I really meant when I said previously that the broadly evangelical want to be successful. When I read that as quoted in Sean’s piece I realized it could be taken more negatively than I intended. Not everyone wants to be successful in a crass or worldly way; many culturally-leaning Christians are driven by a desire for success in connecting with people for the gospel. Meanwhile, those leaning towards the antithesis will tend to leave “success” in the hands of God, desiring above all to be faithful to the clear statements of God’s Word.

All of that is response to Sean’s outstanding comments. But here is an insight that occurs to me as a result. It is because of our sinfulness (and Satan’s working) that the constructive tension between antithesis and common grace breaks down. Satan always wants to take our virtues and contort them into vices, and this is what happens here. The antithesis mentality goes wrong by becoming endlessly sectarian. In the Reformed world, this becomes Reformedamentalism. This is what Carl was warning against. But the common grace mentality goes wrong by deriving more and more of its methods and message from the culture. What seems to connect with the culture takes the Bible’s place as the normative standard. This is what I was warning about. This does not mean that the antithesis position always goes wrong this way (I would argue strongly that harmful sectarianism is intrinsic to antithesis) or that the common grace always or necessarily goes wrong in its way. But the combination of our sin and Satan’s craftiness present the respective dangers to these two positions.

So what is the answer? Let me suggest a couple of hopefully constructive ideas. First, while I will take Sean’s word for it that the antithesis mindset and the common grace mentality cannot be finally resolved, I would suggest that we can nonetheless hold them both in constructive tension. We already do this with the doctrine of election and the doctrine of human responsibility. So why can’t we do the same with antithesis and common grace? We antithesis types (and I certainly am one), can warn ourselves, “Hey, let’s not become unwholesomely sectarian, and let’s push ourselves a bit towards cultural engagement.” And the common grace types can say, “Hey, let’s think carefully about this with a true resolve to make the Bible our source and norm. Let’s be willing to draw lines where they need to drawn, even if the culture will be angry about it.” I know this is hard to do, but this conversation suggests to me the importance of our doing it.

Moreover, it seems to me that this tension between antithesis and common grace calls for us to maintain friendly and constructive relationships with those who lean the other way. If I am an antithesis kind of guy (or gal), I need some trusting and positive relationships with some common grace folks. And if you are a common grace kind of guy (or gal), then you need some trusting and positive relationships with some antithesis folks.

Unfortunately, that is not the way things seem to be shaping up of late. It seems to me that the camps have been hardening in recent years, even within denominations, between the antithesis and the common grace camps. This conversation has helped me to better understand how troubling this is. How greatly it will hinder the work of the gospel and harm our churches if the antithesis folks utterly repudiate the idea of common grace and expose themselves to the dangers of endless sectarianism, while on the other side those committed to common grace close their ears to the biblical critiques of antithesis and thus expose themselves to the dangers of increasingly unbiblical “relevantism”.

I have an idea. I’ll ask Carl over for some crackers. And maybe Sean can bring the cheese.

Posted August 6, 2007 @ 10:00 PM by Rick Phillips
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