The following is adapted from a note Dr. Poythress shared with seminary administration in February 27, 2019, that has influenced how Westminster presents it public theology.
What is public theology? Should Westminster Theological Seminary be involved in public theology, and if so, how? I would like to suggest a possible foundational framework for public theology and pastoral leadership. The framework would suggest ways in which the unique cluster of resources that WTS has inherited might be used in the service of public theology.
Resources at WTS
Many quarters of evangelicalism would like to engage in a theology related to the “public sphere.” But WTS has a depth of resources that make it valuable to think about what might be our distinctive contribution. We have a rich theological heritage in Reformed theology. We have a rich heritage of redemptive-historical interpretation of the Bible, and the use of biblical theology (from Geerhardus Vos and his followers). These potentially provide further depth in interacting with contemporary controversies. We have Van Tilian apologetics, which provides a framework for critical analysis of ideas coming out of the surrounding culture. Apologetics also instructs us on how to communicate with those who disagree. Finally, our heritage in biblical counseling, and its interaction with psychotherapy, gives us one key example of how fruitfully to interact with a cultural issue in a biblically grounded way, and not to lose our bearings in the process.
The challenge of starting further back
So how do we proceed? In my view, one of the keys is not to be too narrow with the foundation we provide for our interaction with the world. Public theology is part of a larger whole. It is not going to be done right if we are just reacting to current events or to hot topics. We want biblical analysis, theological analysis, and cultural analysis as a wider context. Pastors have to present a biblical worldview as a background for specific exhortations.
For example, the biblical view on homosexuality or on sexual identity or on chastity will make no sense to elite culture in the West unless there is a background of a biblically based worldview. God created world. God created mankind. God created sexuality. God created male and female. God rules history. God has a purpose for mankind as a whole and for each individual in particular. The moral law is real. God has spoken in Scripture. The message of redemption addresses the reality of human need with divine, consummate wisdom. And so on.
It strikes me also that, although one of the issues that pastors face is that of statism and church-state relations, the ethical questions are much broader. There is a danger that we would too early focus almost wholly on the political sphere, to the neglect of other aspects of culture.
So what should go into our foundation? It should go without saying that we have as our basis the Bible itself. Subordinate to the Bible, we have the confessional standards of the seminary, the Westminster Standards. These are basic. But then what should we think about in addition, as a foundation for doing public theology? I suggest a framework for cultural analysis.
A focus on cultural analysis by itself is not the complete story. I think that it is right that we focus on pastoral leadership. We are training pastors, and they should not be left without resources for helping people to see the relation of the Christian faith to the cultural movements around them, including, pointedly, the pressures that the culture may bring to bear to suppress the gospel and the church. Though threats of removing accreditation or imposing excessive fines or criminalizing parts of the Bible are fairly new in the West, the hostility of Western elite culture to orthodox Christianity, and with it the attempt to marginalize and suppress, have been going on for decades, even a century. Middle-class people now feel it is not polite to “proselytize.” And that is the West. Because of WTS’s international character, we ought not to forget the variegated pressures that exist in other countries.
Stimulus: Christian views of how to do history
Now what would a sound cultural analysis look like? My springboard for reflection comes from a book I have just finished reading: Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015). It struck me that the “five rival versions” of historical analysis that the book discusses can be mapped by analogy into “five rival versions” of cultural analysis. The five versions got me thinking because we don’t want to be trapped in a version of cultural analysis that is not sufficiently Christian and not sufficiently robust.
In Green’s book, the five versions are presented in five chapters:
1. Historical Study That Takes Religion Seriously (not marginalized as a mere epiphenomenon, as many secularist historians tend to do)
2. Historical Study through the Lens of Christian Faith Commitments (worldview– neo-Kuyperians, e.g. George Marsden [WTS alumnus!])
3. Historical Study as Applied Christian Ethics (moral evaluations and moral lessons)
4. Historical Study as Christian Apologetics (commending Christianity by observing its cultural benefits)
5. Historical Study as Search for God (seeing God’s hand of providence)
Conclusion: Historical Study as Christian Vocation
Actually, the chapter labeled “Conclusion” seems to involve a sixth and perhaps a seventh approach. A sixth view, which Green lets lie in the background most of the time, would say (more or less) that a Christian should see himself as called to do his best job according to the normal standards of his profession, which he need not disturb. We could label this somewhat prejudicially as neutralist historiography, which is distinct from all five of the above views. Green’s conclusion touches on this sixth approach. But his chief focus in the concluding chapter is on the doctrine of vocation, which might be seen as a seventh approach. The theme of vocation could be seen as supporting any one of the six views or even none of them, being merely a broad affirmation of Christian service. Green seems to be most attracted to this seventh viewpoint, but it is not completely clear to me where he stands.
Transition from historical analysis to cultural analysis
My main interest in bringing up Green’s book is that all six or seven views could be transferred to cultural analysis:
1. Cultural Study That Takes Religion Seriously (not marginalized as a mere epiphenomenon, as many secularist cultural analysts tend to do)
2. Cultural Study through the Lens of Christian Faith Commitments (worldview–including neo-Kuyperians)
3. Cultural Study as Applied Christian Ethics (moral evaluations and moral lessons)
4. Cultural Study as Christian Apologetics (commending Christianity by observing its cultural benefits)
5. Cultural Study as Search for God (seeing God’s hand of providence)
6. Neutralist cultural study.
7. Cultural study as vocation (potentially interpreted as supporting any one of 1-6).
As an alternative to this classification, we could go to H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, with its four views. But D. A. Carson (Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]) has rightly complained about the defects of Niebuhr’s typology. Despite its iconic status, Niebuhr’s book offers a confused, muddled starting point. For that reason, I prefer Green’s book as a starting point. Carson’s book is good, but it will not serve well as a starting point because it mostly functions as a warning rather than a positive advance.
The fact that Green has multiple versions of a “Christian” approach shows that we have to think carefully. Which of these is actually Christian? More than one? Do we combine them?
When we look at work on cultural analysis that has already been done, we could even classify people (roughly).
1. Religion as important. Consider Peter Jones, with Oneism and Twoism; Tim Keller and David Powlison on idolatry.
2. Worldview. Hebden Taylor, The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics and the State; Francis Schaeffer; Charles Taylor (though with a mix of other things)
3. Ethics. Wayne Grudem (right wing) and John Howard Yoder (anabaptist; left wing). Many fundamentalists in their cultural analysis focus on commending and condemning. 4. Apologetics–benefits of Christianity. Various people. Francis Schaeffer (though he does a lot of worldview thinking too).
5. Discerning God’s providence. Some Reformed cultural people.
6. Neutralist. Use the neutralist analysis of Peter Berger and other sociologists.
Perspectives on the foundations
So what do I suggest as foundations that go underneath this diversity in the six approaches?
The only way that we are going to avoid an unhealthy dominance of philosophical speculation or neutralist sociological and cultural analysis is if we use the full resources of theology. And this includes biblical theology, which encourages us to use major biblical themes in a flexible way that brings them to bear on culture. Such use may take us beyond the superficial level of piecemeal observations based on piecemeal treatment of texts, or general principles from systematic theology. So (no surprise to those who know me), my suggestions about foundations look perspectival. The six approaches above can be reshaped into perspectives. (And of course the “neutralist” approach will no longer be religiously neutral, but will focus on common-grace benefits in existing secular approaches.)
The Creator/creature distinction is basic. But in our knowledge, the knowledge of Creator and the knowledge of creature go together. We don’t know one except in the context of the other. Because of the unity of knowledge, the following foundational areas are interpenetrating, rather than representing separable boxes. They represent aspects of the WTS heritage, plus areas that could be further developed.
I. Ontological foundations
A. God is Trinity
B. Creation is a product of trinitarian action and with trinitarian purposes and destiny.
C. Man is the image of God.
II. Epistemological foundations
A. God reveals his knowledge (Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, has a big piece on revelation).
1. In revelation in nature (S Situational Perspective)
2. In verbal revelation in Scripture (N Normative Perspective)
3. In human nature (E Existential Perspective)
B. We receive Scripture through Christ, in the Spirit.
Specifically, we examine:
1. Texts (point-like focus)
2. Progressive revelation (Vos’s line of biblical theology)
3. Systematic theology (Vos’s circle)
C. We engage in cultural analysis and social analysis as a form of ethics
1. Use Frame’s triad, NSE, in order to have a rich examination
2. Analyze unity and diversity
Unity of principles and diversity of applications means that there is room for tentativeness in application, within orthodox boundaries. Scripture must be applied to all of life. But not every application can be directly deduced from universal moral principles. This will help in dealing with the vexing difficulties in discerning what a pastor does or does not say within the authority given to him as pastor (not as citizen, member of a school board, individual writer of political letters, etc.)
III. Specific principles for bridging to culture
A. Christ is universal Lord (N: Normative), as in Eph 1:19-23. This theme goes back to Augustine, Calvin, and the Reformed heritage.
B. We acknowledge differentiated “spheres” and structures (S: Situational). This theme has roots in Abraham Kuyper’s discernment of “spheres.” But it can be done more from Scripture, not philosophy. See my Shadow of Christ and Redeeming Sociology. Redeeming Sociology endeavors to work out differentiation of major types of individual roles and societal institutions from biblical differentiation in God as trinitarian, and then in the image of God. Christ’s rule is differentiated rule, giving differentiated authority. See especially Eph. 5:22-6:9; 4:1-16. (In particular, church officers and state officers have limited, delegated authority, and differ in what are the limits in each case.)
C. We analyze motives (E: Existential): unregenerate versus regenerate. This theme was worked out by Kuyper and then further by Van Til. Especially Revelation 17:1-6 and 16:13-14 are relevant.
D. We look for specific texts useful for multiperspectival cultural analysis, based on lordship of Christ, differentiation, spiritual war, and motivations to idolatry versus true worship.
I suggest Ephesians 1:18-23; 4:1-16; 6:1-10; Colossians; Revelation. 13; 17; 19. As a further explanation of Revelation, I see as relevant Vern S. Poythress, “Counterfeiting in the Book of Revelation as a Perspective on Non-Christian Culture,” https://frame-poythress.org/counterfeiting-in-the-book-of-revelation-as-a-perspective-on- non-christian-culture/.
Consider also Matthew teaching blocks: 5-7 (N); 10 (S); 13 (E); 18 (community); 23-25 (prophecy); Psalm 2; Psalm 110; Deuteronomy; Genesis 1-4.
IV. Application of these foundations to cultural analysis
A. Versions of cultural analysis (deriving from Jay Green’s book)
1. Significance of religion. This focus has affinities with interpretive/empathetic sociology, which emphasizes the centrality and complexity of persons and their views and motives (existential perspective). Idolatry of money, sex, and power fits here.
2. Worldview-guided analysis. This focus has affinities with critical sociology, which comes with built-in worldview and ethical guides. It is one form of normative perspective, focusing the norms on the structure of the world.
3. Ethical analysis. This focus has affinities with critical sociology. It is one form of normative perspective, focusing the norms on norms of human behavior.
4. Analysis for apologetics. This focus has affinities with critical sociology. It focuses the norms on situations that reveal benefits of properly chosen norms.
5. Analysis of God’s hand of providence. This focus has affinities with critical sociology. It focuses on norms applied to divinely guided personal vision of the meaning of God’s work.
6. Neutralist analysis. This focus has affinities with scientific sociology, better described as empirical sociology. “Just give me the facts of culture.” (situational perspective, S)
7. An appeal to calling is an appeal to divine speech (normative, N), which calls us to act in a situation (S). Also, calling creates specific personal motivations (E). But mere bare appeal to a general theory of calling will not decide between versions 1-6 above.
We should observe that critical sociology in the secular world has been largely taken over by Marxist and neo-Marxist secular religion. It is religious because people give it deep commitments. It offers a counterfeit way of salvation. It is a mistake to appropriate pieces out of it, as if the pieces were independent of the religious fervor that drives it. A biblically and theologically informed approach to critical analysis of culture builds an alternative framework, not an imitative framework. Of course there will be points of contact, because secular critical sociology has no way to be plausible except by counterfeiting the truth. (The example of biblical counseling is relevant. Biblical counseling is not just “integration” of insights here and there, nor is it an adaptation of a secular framework to give it a “biblical-looking” overlay.)
B. In perspectivalism, 1-6 are not “rival” versions (as Jay Green labels them in the title of his book), but are capable of being made into complementary perspectives. We affirm NSE as perspectives. We affirm, in particular, the importance of S: careful, even meticulous, investigation of facts, primary sources, witnesses, etc. But it is naive to think that this can be done in a religiously neutral way. Thus, the overall approach remains unified.
C. In the diversity of the body of Christ, some people will be better at doing one aspect than another. Some people will be more skillful with facts (S), some with listening empathetically and discerning root motivations (E), some with awareness of transcendent truth (N). There are diversities and relations in the body of Christ.
D. Growth in discernment, individually and corporately, is one aspect of the reality in the overlapping ages. WTS cannot expect to produce a once-for-all blueprint of a theory of public theology that will be complete and will answer all questions. History, governed by God, is dynamic.
V. Application to church and state
A. Church-state relations are best treated against the background of larger cultural analysis. Worldview has a function. And then, within the overall Christian worldview, consider the symbolism for idolatry in the book of Revelation: The Beast (statism) and the False Prophet (media reinforcement of ideology) and the Prostitute (lust for money and sex and self as seeking fulfillment in “identity”).
B. Church and state stand along side other institutions (families, businesses, education, means of communication, sports). Focus on church-state alone runs the danger of giving way to the hegemony of the state over every other aspect of life, outside of the church.
VI. Application to communication
A. Every language and social relation reveals God inescapably.
B. Analysis sensitizes us to obstacles and stimulates prayer to work around misunderstandings. Also, we explore negative critique of failure of anti-Christian thought, its secret dependence on borrowed capital.
C. Centrality of the gospel in overcoming darkness.
1. We live under the universal rule of Christ.
2. For unbelievers, to come to know the Christian worldview takes the Spirit working through the gospel. Argument is not narrowly intellectual.
3. For believers, we are called on to know the true situation and take heart, growing in wisdom. Knowing how to communicate well (Col 4:5-6) depend on hearing and understanding the triumph of Christ, in free forgiveness and in present and future rule.
4. Context of Christian worldview. The gospel makes sense within the framework of creation, fall, redemption, consummation.
That’s it for now. Your insights are welcome.