Were they really?

Two types of architecture on some of our Christian college campuses suggest two strikingly different stances of evangelicals toward modern culture. On a number of campuses there is an “old main” building that looks like a Victorian conception of a medieval fort. Towers and parapets abound. Such imagery suggests that one attitude of evangelicals toward the modern world has been to make war on it. From the crusading forays of Wheaton College’s Jonathan Blanchard against slavery, Masonry, and Sabbath breaking to fundamentalist attacks on modernist theology and secular humanism, a constant theme in evangelical approaches to America has been militancy.

Recently, however, a far more popular architectural style among evangelicals has been the colonial. This motif suggests peacefulness, harmony, and tranquility toward the culture. It relates to the pervasive sense evangelicals have of a lost golden age. Colonial America is widely viewed as a time when the harmonies of Christian culture prevailed. The telling irony, however, is that such themes are suggested by borrowing the classical and Enlightenment architectural ideals of Thomas Jefferson.

Most people do not think they think about history, but these two attitudes toward America are based on evangelical views of history. Each is based more on what the Bible is seen as saying about the modern world than on historical analysis of modern culture itself. The stance of warfare reflects apocalyptic themes in Scripture, focusing on prophecies concerning the upheavals that will surround the approach of the millennial age. The theme of harmonies and lost harmonies reflects the covenantal ideal. America is viewed as, in effect, a new Israel, often blessed by God, but always in danger of destructive judgments. Recently these two views have often been combined in militant efforts to restore America’s lost Christian moral ideals. If the moral reforms are accomplished, America will be great again. If they fail, the judgments of God may mark the beginning of millennial upheavals. Such efforts are, of course, sometimes valuable.

Nonetheless, we should note how recent history is used in such popular views. Each of them begins with a fixed interpretation of the meaning of Scripture for contemporary history. Any actual historical study of American culture is then directed toward collecting illustrations that will fit the historical pattern already determined. Moreover, in such accounts evangelicals, especially American evangelicals, turn out to be privileged people. The actual evangelical heritage, accordingly, is seldom subjected to careful or balanced historical scrutiny.

Many of our nonevangelical contemporaries, finding such views of history self-serving and shallow, suppose that evangelicals simply have no regard for history as a serious critical discipline. Such a view of evangelicals as lacking a sense of history is plausible. Evangelicals indeed have rejected the reverence for history that prevails among our intellectual contemporaries. In this prevailing view, all reality often is reduced to just history. Human experience is regarded as best understood by analyzing the natural cultural and psychological processes that have shaped it. The Bible itself is viewed as just the expression of the historical experience of the Hebrew people. “Truth” is not fixed, but part of the historical stream itself, determined by social convention.

Can we not, however, find a balance between these two extremes—between views that lack critical historical analysis of our own traditions and those that reduce everything to history? On what principle can we adopt modern standards for cultural analysis without adopting the antisupernaturalism and cultural relativism they so often involve?

The Incarnation should be our model in answering these questions. Knowing the incarnate Christ, the historical Jesus of Scripture, commits us to a view of reality and of history. This incarnational view rules out some of the assumptions of prevailing contemporary views of history, but it leads us to appreciate some other of its qualities. First, our faith in the Incarnation tells us that reality cannot be reduced to just human history. A starting point for thought for those who know Christ is that reality involves more than just humanity and nature. We cannot say with Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Rather, we begin our thought with the affirmation that God created the cosmos and enters its history. Second, and closely related, is that we do not need to accept the popular twentieth-century belief that fixed truth cannot be found in historically conditioned circumstances or statements. Faith in Christ’s incarnation presupposes otherwise. Although Christ appears in real human culture and history, his life and words reveal eternal truths, even if we can understand them only imperfectly. The same applies to Scripture.

Finally, and on the other hand, our starting point in the Incarnation should impel us to take ordinary human history with complete seriousness. Christ did not just appear to be human, he was fully human. The Holy Spirit does not just appear to work through ordinary cultural circumstances in the church’s history. These circumstances are crucial means through which he works. Christians therefore should study human cultural developments with utmost care and not be afraid to apply the tools of historical scholarship to their own traditions. Our incarnational starting point commits us to the assumption that God works through the ordinary and even through the uncomely. We need not fear, therefore, to look critically at our own traditions, warts and all.

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