“How are we to be in the world but not of it?”
It’s the question at the center of Acton’s film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, and our response has a profound impact on the shape of our cultural witness.
In a lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Ashford frames the same question around our perspectives on nature and grace, asking: “What should be the relationship between God’s saving works and word and all of the rest of life?”
To answer this, Ashford explores five competing visions, and though he approaches each with a specific focus on education (given his audience), the basic theology applies to all other spheres of culture:
- Grace above nature — “bottom-floor education”
- Grace against nature — “a plague on the educational house”
- Grace in tension with nature — “pastors and educators as dual ministers of God”
- Nature without grace — atheistic / “a naked public quad”
- Grace renews or restores nature — “an educational preview of a coming kingdom”
I’ll leave it to you to watch, listen, and absorb the details of each, but Ashford offers a compelling argument in support of the last (“grace renews nature”) — a vision that fans of the FLOW series and Acton’s Kuyper translation project will find rather familiar.
Ashford explains this view as follows (emphasis mine):
When God created the world, he created it good. He spoke his word, and his word called forth something from nothing, and then it ordered that world. It gave it a certain ordering, and that could be viewed as God’s thesis for the world. This is the way the world ought to be. But Satan…called that into question. He spoke a word against God’s word, and that…antithesis remains today operative everywhere, and operative in every human heart, even Christians…
After the fall, the world remains structurally good but directionally bad…The world the way it is ordered remains good. The fact that we have sun and moon and stars and dry land and water and human beings and animals — that’s good. And the fact that we have a certain cultural order is also good. Things like the arts and the sciences and politics and economics…All of these sorts of things we do in this realm remain good in their what-ness. The fact that they exist is good.
These creational and cultural things are not corrupted ontologically; we don’t have to separate from them. But they are bad directionally. Because sin is essentially a redirecting of the heart away from God…and because it is religiously rooted and located in the heart, it radiates outward into everything we do. And so we continue to be cultural beings and social beings, but all of our social and cultural doings are corrupted by sin and idolatry…
…Grace and nature belong together…Christ Jesus’ redemption should transform us in the entirety of our being, and as it redirects our heart from idols toward the one, true living God, it should then change the way we operate in culture…His lordship is as wide creation, and therefore it is as wide as our cultural eyes…Our mission, therefore, the Christian mission is as wide as the entirety of our cultural and social lives, involving both our words and our deeds and our teaching and learning.
For more on this as it regards to education, see Kuyper’s Scholarship.