I’ve discovered something in the overlap of teaching Western Civilization at Fruitland Baptist Bible College and teaching at my local church—something that has formed my ministry perspective and challenged my intellectual boundaries. Here’s my discovery—too many Christians and preachers fail to contextualize biblical truth in light of the historical and philosophical developments of our age. As a result, I believe proper application of theological prescriptions deriving from the authority of Scripture make far too little headway in today’s Western culture.
I think it was Francis Schaeffer who argued (and I paraphrase) that the field of the theology was the last intellectual sphere to address significant philosophical and historical developments. In other words, the church has been late in addressing the prevailing intellectual and moral challenges of our age. After teaching young college students and interacting church members over the years, I’m convinced Schaeffer was correct. That is why I firmly believe we as church leaders, pastors, ministers, and theological students must read broadly and contextualize theology and scriptural application in our modern age.
Let me briefly offer an example related to scriptural authority. If you are a biblical conservative holding a high view of Scripture as I am, then you believe Scripture is true, authoritative, and applicable today just as it was when it was first penned. I’m afraid though that we are preaching to congregations who may offer lip service to that view, but have been bombarded by a philosophical and historical context that has undermined biblical authority. Generally speaking, the Enlightenment overreacted to the religious conflicts spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Enlightenment philosophes subordinated religion to the realm of personal values (privatizing religious truth) and elevated science to the realm of facts. This shift served as a precursor to the higher critical views which further undermined biblical authority in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Nancy Pearcey highlighted in her book Total Truth, vestiges of this divide have permeated contemporary culture through academia and media. Further attacks on biblical authority have come from postmodernism’s hyper-personalization of interpretation. Thusly, postmodernism places interpretive authority in the hands of the reader not the author.
The implication for our congregations must not be missed. Essentially, our understanding of authority and interpretation has been shaped by the tensions of Enlightenment modernism and contemporary postmodernism. Why does this matter? In short, it matters greatly because our pews are filled with individuals influenced by these tensions. When we, as well-meaning, truthful communicators stand in our pulpits to declare, “Thus says the Lord” we must be cognizant that some (if not many) in our audience might hear, “Thus says another voice among many.” How can we address this dilemma? Let me offer three suggestions.
- Be aware of this tension. As I argued above, read broadly in theology, history, and philosophy. You can start with Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth or Andrew Hoffecker’s Revolutions in Worldview.
- Build a strong case for the authority of Scripture. The basis for our preaching is the authority of God’s Word. Undermine the authority and you diminish the preaching. Emphasize the authority and you properly elevate the task of preaching.
- Build bridges between God’s Word and its authoritative influence on our lives in contemporary culture. John Stott argued for this aim of preaching in his classic book, Between Two Worlds. We should declare in our preaching that God’s Word has authority and apply it clearly to personal, intellectual, philosophical, academic, scientific, and historical dimensions (on and on the list could go).
If we love Scripture as God’s authoritative revelation of himself, we will not be content to apply its supra-cultural truths only in our holy huddles. Rather, we will explore the influential ways God desires to speak authoritatively to our contemporary age. Let us understand the dilemma of our culture. Let us accept the challenge of declaring Scripture’s authority. Let us apply God’s Word to our own lives and live it out in contemporary culture.