Thursday, January 01, 2015

Keller and "contextualizing" the Gospel message: Sin as Idolatry

Contextualization is not—as is often argued— "giving people what they want to hear." Rather, it is giving people the Bible's answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. [Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 89]

... Sin, I explained, is building your life's meaning on any thing—even a very good thing— more than on God. Whatever else we build our life on will dive our passions and choices and end up enslaving us. ... Today in the West, our values have shifted, and our cultural narrative tells us it is most important to be a free person. The biblical theme of idolatry challenges contemporary people precisely at that point. It shows them that, paradoxically, if they don't serve God, they are not, and can never be, as free as they aspire to be. (Ibid., 127)

Part of this approach [Keller's portrayal of sin as idolatry -DHC] is its subjectivity. When Keller says in Center Church that 'The biblical theme of idolatry challenges contemporary people ... It shows them that, paradoxically, if they don't serve God, they are not, and can never be, as free as they aspire to be,' he sounds more like a life coach than a gospel preacher. The primary focus of the gospel is to restore our relationship with God, not our personal wellbeing.

For all Keller's discussion of biblical narratives, however, it is difficult to agree with him that Paul's basic thesis in Romans 1 is that idolatry is the basic human problem, the soil out of which every sin grows. It could be argued that this is to reverse the Pauline argument, which is that unrighteousness, or sin, leads to a suppression of the knowable truth about God, which in turn is expressed by creature worship instead of by Creator worship. For Paul, the idolatry is the symptom, not the cause. [Iain D. Campbell, "Keller on 'Rebranding' the Doctrine of Sin," in Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, eds., Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Darlington, England, EP Books, 2013), 43]

I have previously posted concerning Keller on contextualization before. The issue is not whether one has to "contextualize" in the sense of modifying one's expression of the Gospel message, but rather the type of modification advocated for. In this part of his book Center Church, Keller has "contextualized" the doctrine of sin for the city of New York, but is that faithful to the orthodox doctrine of sin, and how does it reflect Keller's practice of contextualization of the Gospel as a whole?

In the book Engaging with Keller, Iain Campbell showed that Keller's rebranding of sin confuses the symptom with the cause. I think that is a genuine concern, yet I would like to go further. Keller after all defined sin as idolatry because that particular aspect of sin resonates with the target culture he is trying to reach. In the process of contextualization, Keller uses what the culture values (i.e. freedom), and turns it against itself to convict people of sin. Now, in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with seeing sin as consisting of idolatry, but it is a different thing altogether when one defines sin AS idolatry.

Contextualization is seen by Keller as trying to show the recipients that the Christian faith fulfills what they long for. Generally, such a practice is known as seeker-sensitivity. But here, the word "seeker-sensitivity" is not used partly because it now refers either to Robert Schuller's, Bill Hybels', and/or Rick Warren's ministry methodologies, and nobody who is not an overt pragmatist wants to identify himself with these. However, the essential aspect of why they do what they do remains the same: the target sets the manner of discourse, and the Bible gives the answers. The reason why Keller's idea of contextualization is not to be lumped with the traditional seeker-sensitivity methods is due to his desire not to allow the culture to remove what he thinks is the offense of the Gospel message, so Keller is not a pragmatist in that way. Keller, and all who follow Him, allow the culture to set the manner of discourse but not the content of the discourse, as opposed to the pragmatists.

The problem with such contextualization is that the Gospel ends up pandering to the autonomous human self, because it is used as the way to solve OUR life goals, although it is indeed God's way. God becomes the fulfiller of whatever that culture values. In contrast to this, the Scriptures has God as the judge and Man as the indicted one. God is God regardless of whether He fulfills anything. Man has to be put in his place as the creature, not to have his autonomy unchallenged by showing God as the "fulfiller" of one's values.

Keller mentioned the problems with portraying God as a judge and that sin is violation of God's law, and those problems are indeed real. But here is where the larger context of Scripture comes into play. The reason why men cannot comprehend God being a judge and sin being a violation of His Law is because they do not have a biblical cosmology. The problem is that they do not see God as Creator. So, yes, we do not start with God as judge and sin as violation of God's law. Rather, we start with creation, as God intended the biblical story to begin. The problem with ALL cultures is dealt with with a robust doctrine of creation, because ALL peoples are created by God, and ALL cultures came from Babel.

It is sad though understandable why Keller cannot begin with creation. Keller cannot begin with creation because Keller denies biblical cosmology. Keller capitulates to the zeitgeist by his denial of the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo in the space of six days, and his embracing of Theistic Evolution. Of course Keller will struggle to show why Christianity is relevant, because the correct way to do so depends on what he denies as being true. But without actually having a biblical cosmology, which grounds the Christian faith on real objective historical facts, why would anyone believe in a old sky-daddy? Keller will proclaim the historicity of Christ, but without a biblical cosmology, why would what Christ do even matter? The objective nature of sin is linked to the historicity of Genesis 3, otherwise sin becomes purely subjective or at best non-transcendental quasi-objective. No historical creation in 6 days, no historical Fall, no historical basis for the cultures of the world (i.e. not from Babel)— such a "Christianity" is rootless and no different from any other religion that proclaims itself as being true.

Keller's contextualization is certainly well-intentioned, but it just does not work. Using such "contextualization" only results in the autonomy of men remaining unchallenged, and while Man's autonomy might be challenged later in a different form, there is little basis for that and might instead feel like bait-and-switch. As Dr. James White has said, "what you win them with is what you win them to," those who are won by portraying God as the fulfiller of one's desires will be won to seeing God as the fulfiller of their desires, and, bar the work of the Spirit, will not appreciate being challenged concerning their human autonomy.

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