Today, Reformed Margins is happy to publish a guest post by Moses Lee, in which he reviews and reflects upon Created and Creating by Bill Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary.
Moses Y. Lee (MDiv, ThM) is a church planting resident in the Korean Capital Presbytery (PCA). He lives and serves in the D.C. metro area. You can follow him on Twitter at @MosesYLee.
Growing up in conservative Asian American churches, I discovered that the Neo-Confucian values of my home conveniently overlapped with the American cultural values of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. This eventually resulted in absolute conformity to the white majority culture’s evangelical/fundamentalist context–a spirituality consisting of patriarchy, performance, and proselytization. As a result of my conformity, my understanding of the Great Commission suffered from a myopic vision of “soul-saving” that dispensed with cultural engagement.
Political Conservatism and the Spirituality of the Church
Historically, most Southern evangelicals prioritized evangelism at the neglect of cultural engagement. Oftentimes their neglect of cultural engagement was fiercely defended by their doctrine of the spirituality of the church, in which they justified their moral apathy (sometimes antagonism) toward abolishing institutionalized slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. As long as slaves were given opportunities to hear the Gospel and as long as “liberated” African Americans were given the freedom to attend segregated churches, many Southern evangelicals felt justified in their systemic oppression of people of color.
As an Asian American growing up in the white majority culture’s evangelical circles, the model minority myth cast an inescapable shadow over my Asian American Christian subculture and implicitly demanded unquestioned allegiance to the white evangelical/fundamentalist tribe. Asian American Christians are the quintessential model minorities–highly educated, staunch conservatives, and politically passive. Asian Americans are also paraded as an ideal minority purposely contrasted against African Americans in order to deter us from political activism against the powers that be. In return for benefiting from the system, there is an expectation that they uphold the tribal status quo. As a result, the slightest whiff of cultural engagement through social justice campaigns, cultural renewal projects, political activism, etc. are viewed with suspicion by the Asian American Christian community. Such involvement is considered liberal, neo-orthodox, and/or divisive.
Enter William Edgar’s new book, Created And Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution often described as the bastion of Old School Presbyterianism. And this is what makes his latest book so fascinating and important.
In response to various conservative evangelical/fundamentalist attitudes toward cultural engagement, Edgar graciously dismantles the popular false dichotomy of evangelism versus cultural engagement. He does so by exegetically and theologically laying the foundations for a biblical theology of culture. According to Edgar, “culture represents a guide for living that takes into account the deepest and broadest components of human experience” (p. 19). Culture’s importance is universally acknowledged, its impact is ever so controversial, and its influence is often viciously fought over. But the question remains, “Do Christians have a moral responsibility to engage, reform, and propagate culture?”
The Contra Mundum Texts
Edgar cautions against reading the contra mundum (trans. “against the world”) texts (e.g., Matt 6:19-21; Mk 12:13-17; Jn 8:23; Rom 12:2; Jas 4:4; 2 Pet 3:10) out of context and missing the imperative to engage culture. Furthermore, following the similar arguments made by D.A. Carson and other New Testament scholars, Edgar suggests that the word, “kosmos” (trans. “world”), contains both positive and negative meaning in the New Testament. He argues for a more nuanced approach by beginning with a big picture, three-step interpretation consisting of creation, fall, and redemption (p. 116). In this approach, each step must maintain clear distinction from one another. Confusion always arises from the inability to maintain the distinctiveness of each step:
1) Evangelicals/Fundamentalists tend to overemphasize the fall at the neglect of redemption resulting in an under-realized eschatology (i.e., evangelizing while neglecting cultural engagement).
2) Liberals tend to overemphasize redemption at the neglect of the fall resulting in an over-realized eschatology (i.e., engaging the culture while neglecting evangelism).
In the words of Francis Schaeffer, Edgar reminds us, “the fall was ethical, not metaphysical” (p. 116). In this manner, Christians in this current age must live under the holy tension of “avoiding the seduction of the worldly system” while “engaging the world and continuing to transform it” (p. 126). Indeed, in the age to come, biblical “images of destruction signal not the complete annihilation of God’s creation but the purging of evil” (p. 133). Based on his reading of 2 Pet 3:10, though the exact details of what will survive the purge remain uncertain, what is clear is that regenerated humanity and their works of righteousness (i.e., their cultural endeavors) will continue into consummation (p. 136).
The Great Commission as Fulfillment of the Cultural Mandate
With the understanding that Scripture is one continuous narrative of God saving his people and climaxing in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Edgar breaks down the implications of the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28) into three parts: 1) “The covenant blessing of God on the human race,” 2) The call “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with our productive presence,” and 3) The call “to rule over the creation with benevolent lordship” (p. 176). In other words, cultural engagement was a central part of humanity’s calling from the beginning of history. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Old Testament narrative continues to reiterate the cultural mandate in several distinct yet successive versions. Eventually, the Old Testament begins to anticipate the fulfillment of the cultural mandate with the coming of the Messiah. In the Gospels, the Kingdom of God fulfills this anticipation with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), expanding upon the three original implications of the cultural mandate. Hence, making disciples includes both gospel proclamation and cultural engagement. Finally, in the new heavens and new earth, we will “clearly understand how earthly activities are not abandoned in the new heavens and new earth, but given their fullest meaning” (p. 231).
Adjusting the Kingdom Ethics of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Tribe
Overall, this book stands as an important corrective to a myopic view of the Great Commission. For my Asian American brothers and sisters, we must understand our application of the Great Commission, more often than not, embodies an incomplete biblical imperative for being disciples of Jesus Christ. We must abandon the model minority myth that upholds the white evangelical/fundamentalist status quo and engage our culture by seeking justice, correcting oppressive systems, and pleading the widow’s cause (Isa 1:17; Jas 1:27) in addition to evangelism.
For Christians who continue to uphold the white evangelical culture’s imperative to evangelize while neglecting to reform the systemic oppression and social constructs that work against people of color, urban poor, immigrants, women, etc., we must acknowledge our mistaken tendency toward espousing an under-realized eschatology out of fear for being too worldly, dividing the church, and/or blurring the separation of church and state. Indeed, we cannot limit our cultural engagement to merely legislating morals as some conservative evangelicals tend to do. To realize complete and lasting cultural transformation, we must confront all forms and systems of injustice with equal passion. May our Kingdom ethics be rooted not in a spirit of fear “but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7).