Tim Challies reviewed Tullian Tchividjian’s new book Unfashionable yesterday. Tim expressed some concerns about transformationalism, “the view that God seeks to redeem and renew not just people but nations and cultures.” You see this expressed when Tullian writes passages like this:
God promises nothing short of total cosmic renewal. Our confident anticipation of that renewal — our living hope of it — triggers and sustains our excitement and motivation for making a difference by living unfashionable lives. It links us with something so grand and glorious that it easily exposes the flimsy lie behind mere fashionability.
Again: “Churches are designed by God to be instruments of renewal in the world, renewing not only individual lives but also cultural forms and structures, helping to make straight all that is crooked in our world.” Tim counters: “I do not see Paul’s concern with culture except as a means to reach souls…I will simply say that I do not see that the Bible teaches such an emphasis.”
Tim’s disagreement led to some good discussion in the comments.
Tim is right on a couple of issues. First, there is a genuine discontinuity between this age and the next. We should not expect cosmic renewal quite yet. Second, Paul does not spend much time telling us to transform culture.
BUT there is more to be said. There is both continuity and discontinuity between this world and the next; Tim acknowledges this. The trick is to hold these in tension. Jesus’ resurrection took place in this age and in this world; and the kingdom is already present here and now, but not in its fullness.
Doesn’t 2 Peter 3:10 say this world going to be destroyed? Doug Moo (PDF) argues that Scripture teaches the world’s transformation, not replacement. Moo strikes the right balance in what he concludes this about the environment, with some application to the larger issue of cultural renewal: “While rarely rising to the level of an explicit emphasis, and never the chief concern in and of itself, the world of nature is an integral component of God’s new creation work.”
Tim Keller writes that this is an often neglected part of our teaching:
I must admit that so many of us who revel in the classic gospel of “grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” largely ignore the eschatological implications of the gospel…
If this final renewal of the material world was part of Paul’s good news, we should not be surprised to see that Jesus healed and fed while preaching the gospel as signs and foretastes of this coming kingdom (Mt. 9:35).
When we realize that Jesus is going to someday destroy hunger, disease, poverty, injustice, and death itself, it makes Christianity what C. S. Lewis called a “fighting religion” when we are confronted with a city slum or a cancer ward. This full version of the gospel reminds us that God created both the material and the spiritual, and is going to redeem both the material and the spiritual.
There are many more themes one could develop here: the creation mandate; Scriptural teaching on culture; the implications of Jesus teaching us to pray “your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; the culture-transforming implications of New Testament commands; the implications of the present reign of Christ in the world; explicit commands to care for non-spiritual needs; a Christian view of vocation and government; Pauline teaching on taking every thought captive, God reconciling all things in Christ, and so on.
We can overstate this case – but I’m afraid that we can also understate it as well. Transformationalism (or whatever you want to call it) is not non-biblical, as Challies suggests; it’s deeply biblical, and we need to explore it and live its implications, neither understating or overstating its importance.
I love this quote from Neil Plantinga:
At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too…
Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans…The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed – every last person, place, organization, and program; all “rocks and trees and skies and seas”; in fact, “every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is “a theater for the mighty works of God,” first in creation and then in re-creation.