Todd Billings at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan wants to remind mega-cool pastors like Mark Driscoll of a few things with regard to Calvinism, and there is a lot of good take away from his suggestions. It is true that the so-called New Calvinists, in their quest to make Johnny C. everybody’s five-point homeboy, miss more nuanced traits that make for a better simmered Reformed witness. For those of us who trek out of a broad evangelicalism steeped in world-flight piety, and perhaps even more especially for those of us who also previously inhabited a secular life where the world was nothing to be feared, one of those vital traits is the affirmation of the created order as indeed “very good.” And from such a theology comes the subsequent doctrine of vocation.
But statements like these seem to keep matters a little confusing:
This community exists in the world and has eyes for God’s kingdom as it shows up in hospitals, homes, schools and nature preserves. Some call this emphasis the “cultural mandate” in the Reformed tradition—a mandate not to “take back” American culture through the formation of a Christian subculture, but to send a people formed by Word and sacrament to be salt and light in government, the arts, education and all areas of society. The Reformed tradition provides an alternative both to cultural triumphalism and cultural disengagement. Living ever deeper in their God-given identity in Christ, Christians are to act as agents of cultural transformation without collapsing their calling into uncritical advocacy of a particular cultural-political movement.
It is always a heartening thing when one hears the attempt to chart a course between cultural triumphalism and cultural disengagement. Like the drunken mounter, much of Christendom does seem to fall off Luther’s proverbial horse, rushing either headlong into worldly victory or shrinking back into monastic withdrawal. But while the spirit may be willing the flesh is weak. And spirits go flaccid when the narrow path is that “Christians are to act as agents of cultural transformation.” For one thing, it is not altogether clear how those who traffic in what might be construed as cultural triumphalism are finally any different from those who conceive of themselves as being culturally transformative. It may be true that not all transformationists are triumphalists, but don’t all triumphalists at least begin by being transformationists? After all, not all those who wield worldly power are tyrants, but all tyrants seem to begin with a quest for power.
For another, is there really something so wrong with suggesting that believers are to be cultural participants rather than agents of cultural transformation? It would seem that to speak of participation instead of transformation makes all the difference. One gets the sense that to participate instead of transform is to live something of a less-than-victorious Christian life. Where transformers are bred to expect achievement and dominion, participants are asked to live with loss and be patient in the midst of frustration. Transformers stand out, participants blend in. It’s easy to see how the language and doctrine of transformation appeals to westerners over that of mere participation. True, to transform one must also participate. But if the Christian life really is marked by the ordinary over against the extraordinary then it would seem that, from beginning to end, participation is the category of choice with a careful intent to resist the siren song of transformation.