Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

  1. One question:

    What is the goal of the church’s public witness? Is it to build a new culture and society for the state and convert the government?

    I’m bewildered by the lament for yesteryear, where everyone believed in God, of a Judeo-Christian framework. The Medieval period, while not benighted as told by the Enlightenment narrative, was a spiritual wasteland, where lords spiritual and temporal abused the peoples in untold ways. Jesus said if they do not obey Me, they do not love me. And while knowing, intellectually, is a prerequisite, thats not enough. In fact, it’s worse, as evinced by the Pharisees.

    I agree that we ought to remain a faithful public witness, but for the sake of being faithful, and not to reassume a triumphant posture of being dominant. Such is the error of Constantine, and akin to the akin of Jeroboam.

    Cal

  2. Derek,
    Well said. I read the entire article and really appreciate the focus on God, His Holiness, and why we they should matter. I have said often that we have lost a deep understanding of God’s Holiness because we have such a poor understanding of the horror of sin to God. Thanks for reminding the body to focus on Him.

  3. The devil has a high idea of God.

    We need to hand over Christ for the ungodly…in Word and sacrament…and never let ourselves think that we are on the ‘right track’.

    There is no fixing this place…or ourselves.

    We actually need a Savior.

    Thanks, Derek.

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