Christians & Secular Thinking

Christians & Secular Thinking

Sacred vs Secular Knowledge

Writing in what was probably the early 200s AD, Tertullian posed the question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was contrasting two kinds of knowledge: Sacred knowledge, derived from divine revelation (Jerusalem), and secular knowledge which is derived from modern philosophy/thinking (Athens).

There were (and are) two schools of thought on this:

1. Secular Philosophy Is a Threat. Tertullian was of the persuasion that true religion needs to be kept completely undiluted from the influence of secular philosophy. He believed that secular philosophy posed a danger of seducing Christians away from the inspired truth of Scripture.

2. Secular Philosophy Can Be Beneficial If Used Properly. Clement, who was a contemporary of Tertullian, was of a very different persuasion. He believed that “all truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found”. In his writings, he sought to “use what is best in philosophy” in informing his own thinking on things.

I pick up on this early Christian debate because it still has incredible relevance today. Tertullian has been referred to as the proto-conservative and Clement as the proto-liberal because the modern debate follows similar lines.

As a general observation, I would say that Liberals tend to have too high a view of secular philosophy and it comes at the expense of having Scripture as their measure of all truth. Conservatives tend to underestimate how much of their thinking has inevitably been shaped by the thinking of the culture around them. Tertullian, for example, had a very Greek conception of a ‘passionless God’ which seems foreign and inexplicable to the modern conservative because we are not familiar with the culture in which he was immersed.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.Romans 12:2 (NIV)

 

Apologetics – Rationalising the Christian Belief

From the earliest of times in the history of Christianity, leading Christian thinkers of the day made a concerted effort to engage the culture by explaining and defending Christian beliefs using the contemporary ideas and philosophies of the culture around them. Their intention was two-fold: they aimed to debunk many of the myths which began circulating about their new religion and often resulted in the persecution of Christians. Secondly, they aimed to win people over to Christianity by explaining the Gospel in terms that would be familiar to the people of the culture.

There does seem to be a Biblical precedent for doing this. Ironically it was in Athens itself that Paul sat down to discuss his faith with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17). He appeals to an inscription he had read “To an unknown god” as well as some poetry from the culture as a bridge to explain his new religion.

On the other hand, we are warned by Paul, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” 1 Corinthians 1:20 – 21 (ESV)

And so here lies the tension. We do need to explain the Gospel and the wisdom of God in culturally relevant ways, but there is a spiritual element to Godly wisdom which means that it is never going to be fully accessible to the non-spiritual mind. There is always going to be a ‘foolish’ factor that will be a stumbling block to the wise men of the world.

Paul also warns us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 (NIV)

In this passage Paul seems to directly contrast the wisdom of Athens and the wisdom of Jerusalem, implying that our thinking needs to be renewed to reflect the wisdom of Jerusalem. In this sense then I think the caution which Tertullian had regarding secular philosophy was very sensible.

 

The Rules of Engagement

To be honest, what has prompted me to discuss this topic is how many people I have witnessed fall victim to the many pitfalls there are when engaging with the world of secular philosophy. As I have already reasoned, I believe we will inevitably have to engage with the ideas of our culture but we need some guidelines for how to do that in a constructive way.

Rule 1: Don’t Be Ashamed of the Gospel

Paul must have faced the same kind of ridicule which the Gospel often induces today when he said that he was under obligation to preach the Gospel both to “Greeks and barbarians” but nevertheless he wrote,

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” Romans 1:16 – 17 (ESV)

In attempting to rationalise the Gospel and Kingdom ethics we can fall into the trap of caring too much about what secular educated critics will say or think about us. The question is if what we preach seems unreasonable, will we still preach it because God says it is true? Or more pointedly, will I believe what Scripture says even before I understand why or how it can be true?

The question is if what we preach seems unreasonable, will we still preach it because God says it is true? Or more pointedly, will I believe what Scripture says even before I understand why or how it can be true?

Yes, there are reasonable proofs that can be investigated about the truth of the resurrection and many of the historical and archaeological finds confirming what the Bible says, after all, the Apostles regarded themselves as “witnesses” to the fact of Christ’s resurrection. But is it reasonable to assume that all of God’s wisdom will be accessible to my mortal mind? Surely not, for if that were true it would mean that we as created beings have the capacity for reasoning and knowledge comparable to our Creator God! Therefore there is enough evidence to satisfy the enquiring mind that Scripture is divinely inspired but we dare not go further than that.

Those that engage in the work of defending and explaining the Gospel in a secular culture need to guard their hearts against intellectual pride. In our desire to sound reasonable (or even profound) our pride can make us fear sounding foolish or ‘primitive’. This has caused many apologists to neglect, re-package or even deny certain aspects of Christian teaching to save face.

The crucial question becomes – How much can we accommodate the Christian message to secular thinking before we fundamentally alter the Christian message?

Tim Keller, Sin and Hell

I would like to reference two modern examples from the renowned preacher and apologist Tim Keller. Not only does Keller engage secular philosophy in the public sphere, but his aim is also to preach within the church in such a way as to engage the young secular sceptic.

1. Sin: In Keller’s own words: “When I first began ministry in Manhattan, I encountered a cultural allergy to the Christian concept of sin. I found that I got the most traction with people, however, when I turned to the Bible’s extensive teaching on idolatry. Sin, I explained, is building your life’s meaning on anything – even a very good thing – more than on God.[1]

He contends that the trouble that people in his culture have with the Christian definition of sin begins when we “define sin as a violation of God’s law in a postmodern culture”[2].

So what we find here is Keller’s attempt to accommodate the Gospel message to contemporary ideas by defining sin in a way that has more resonance in the culture. To put it more bluntly, Keller says, “… I have to rebrand the word “sin”… Around here it means self-centeredness, the acorn from which it all grows. Individually, that means ‘I live for myself, for my own glory and happiness, and I’ll work for your happiness if it helps me.’ Communally, self-centeredness is destroying peace and justice in the world, tearing the net of interwovenness, the fabric of humanity.[3]

You can see what he is trying to do, he is trying to help his audience understand the seriousness of sin in terms of the destructive effect that it has on individuals and on society. But it is not hard to see how this is a slippery slope that starts with good intentions but ends with a very man-centred Gospel. It is true that sin is very destructive for us but the Bible does not primarily define sin in these terms, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” 1 John 3:4 (ESV)

If we do not understand sin for what it is, even the cross will not make sense because Jesus paid the penalty of our law-breaking, he paid our ‘debt of sin’. God’s justice demands that when we break his law there is a debt to be paid, and the punishment is death.

If we do not understand sin for what it is, even the cross will not make sense

2. Hell: I distinctly remember a conversation with a lady after she had just sat through my teaching on hell. She said, “I could never believe in a God who treats people that way! I believe in hell the way Keller teaches it.” Needless to say, I was quite curious to hear what Keller teaches on the subject, I wasn’t aware that he taught anything different to orthodox evangelical theology.

Here is a snippet that will give you some idea of the language he uses in describing what hell is and what it is not, “Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says ‘Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!’ This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil. The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential. If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell – the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.[4]

It would seem that the “caricature” that he is referring to was the kind of orthodox evangelical teaching on hell that I was giving. Keller teaches that it is not God that sends us to hell or punishes us in hell, rather, God gives us over to our own sinful desires and it is our own sinfulness that creates the hell. God does not keep sinners in hell against their will, it is the sinner’s hatred toward God that keeps them there.

As with his ‘rebranding’ of sin to accommodate the culture’s way of thinking, Keller is again explaining a crucial Christian doctrine in a way that will resonate more effectively with a post-modern audience. He is explaining hell in terms of the effect of sin on people, that sin is intrinsically destructive and harmful, but he is doing so at the expense of what hell teaches us about the nature of God. God exercises His just rule over His creation and it is His prerogative as God of the universe to punish rebels and sinners.

Keller is well aware of how unpopular the Christian doctrine of hell is in secular society. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “In our culture, divine judgement is one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines.”[5]

It is for this reason that the doctrine of hell tends to act as the ‘canary in the mineshaft[6] in modern preaching. If we are ashamed of the Gospel, when we are afraid of sounding foolish or primitive, when we are afraid of offending the culture’s sensibilities, the way we preach on hell is often the first victim.

If we are ashamed of the Gospel, when we are afraid of sounding foolish or primitive … of offending the culture’s sensibilities, the way we preach on hell is often the first victim.

Rule 2: The Scriptures Are the Measure of All Truth

One of the consequences of the idea that “all truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found” has been to elevate secular theories and philosophies to the level of Scripture. Many pastors quote as many contemporary philosophers and artists in their sermons as they do Scripture. This error is at the heart of everything that is wrong with Liberal Christianity today. It is the elevation of the wisdom of Athens to the level of the wisdom of Jerusalem. It is to treat the wisdom of Scripture not as the inspired wisdom of God but essentially as just another book in the genre of Wisdom literature. The ‘best of Christian wisdom’ is drawn upon to supplement the accumulated ‘wisdom’ gleaned from all other sources as well.

The Liberal school of theology tend to think of the Scriptures as a body of truth that needs ‘updating’ for every generation in the light of developments in modern science and philosophy, hence “Progressive Christianity”. They fear that if we don’t continually revise our knowledge of and relationship to Biblical truth, Christianity will become outdated and irrelevant.

Desmond Tutu, Liberal Christians and the Bible

Desmond Tutu is a prime example of this kind of thinking. Quoted in a CNN article: “Tutu says he still reads the Bible everyday but recommends that people don’t believe everything it teaches. “You have to understand is that the bible is really a library of books and it has different categories of material,” he said. “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery. St Paul said women should not speak in church at all and there are people who have used that to say women should not be ordained. There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.””[7]

There is a prevalent and popular myth that society as a whole is progressing as it becomes more modern and more educated. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the secular elite remains convinced that modern ethical standards are more enlightened than previous generations. Liberal Christians have bought into this myth and thus they are frequently embarrassed by what the Bible has to say. This is especially true in three areas:

1. Ethics – pundits of modern ethics are increasingly painting Biblical ethics as ‘primitive’ and ‘out-dated’ as culture enters the post-Christian era.

2. Science – the influence of the naturalistic/scientific mode of thinking precludes divine miracles. This has pressured liberal theologians to reinterpret supernatural elements in the Biblical narrative (such as the resurrection of Christ, for example) as mythology or as metaphorical. The scientific theory of Evolution has also pressured liberal theologians to regard the Genesis narrative as purely mythological or to try and synthesise the Genesis account with the theory of Evolution.

3. Absolute Truth Claims – because it is believed that the cumulative wisdom of humanity is progressing and growing, the truth of Scripture is not considered to be absolute or exclusive. Here again, Tutu represents the liberal view well: “We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.[8]

At this point, it will be helpful to reconsider the idea that seemed to set the course for the radical departure from orthodoxy that has happened within liberal Christianity, the idea that “all truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found”. In attempting to make use of ‘the best of secular philosophy’ Christians can never allow extra-biblical ‘wisdom’ to become the measure by which we evaluate or interpret Scripture.

Scripture must always remain our ‘golden standard’ because the truth it contains is absolute. The wisdom of Scripture is unique because it is the wisdom of God, who knows all things. Scripture does not simply take its place in a library of other books representing the wisdom of man, it is the book by which all the contributions of men should be weighed and evaluated.

The mistake that is often made by liberal Christianity is to regard secular philosophy as free from spiritual influence, as though it were in the ‘neutral zone’ in the war between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Scripture teaches us differently, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (NIV)

The clash of the kingdoms takes place in the world of ideas. Philosophy is the business of making sense of the world. Unfortunately, all attempts to make sense of the world are ultimately going to prove futile apart from God. This means that intelligent men will make many accurate observations about the way the world is, but when they take these observations and attempt to make sense of them they are going to consistently fall short of the wisdom of God. Worse than that, satan will often influence worldly philosophy to deliberately arrive at wrong conclusions in order to rival the wisdom of God.

Rule 3: “One Cannot Speak of God Simply By Speaking of Man in a Loud Voice”

Karl Barth studied in Germany at a time when liberal theology had over-taken Protestant theology. He grew frustrated during the time of the first world war when he noticed that many liberal Christians were in favour of military aggression.[9] He realised that their low view of Scripture, as just another human book, meant that their view of God was simply a reflection of themselves. They had created a god in their own image and therefore Scripture had no power to challenge their wrong thinking. In response to this, he is famously quoted as saying, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice”.

An essential part of growing in wisdom is to recognise the ‘other-ness’ of God. Wisdom begins with the humble recognition of the vast gulf in competency between creator God and mortal man. This passage in Ecclesiastes alludes to this: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:2 (ESV)

Wisdom begins with the right perspective of where both God and man fit in the grander scheme of things.

Both the fall of satan and the fall of man were preceded by a desire to be like God. Wisdom begins with the right perspective of where both God and man fit in the grander scheme of things. In its enthusiasm to embrace ‘the best of secular philosophy’, liberal Christianity has all too often put the wisdom of Man on the same pedestal as Humanism does, which essentially replaces God with Man.

 

What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

As Christians who are ‘in the world but not of the world’, we are going to need to come to terms with the ideas, the values and the attitudes of the culture in which we are immersed, if only to translate the Gospel to the culture in language which they can understand. At the same time, we need to maintain the sacredness of the divine revelation which God has graciously given us, through the Scriptures, but most especially through His Son – the Living Word. We need to be discerning and constantly evaluating the wisdom and the values of the culture in the light of God’s divinely revealed truth. The truth of Scripture will never become outdated or irrelevant, regardless of how much the attitudes and ‘wisdom’ of the world shift and change in every successive generation. In a world that is lost, desperately confused and in need of the Light, what we have found in Jesus is infinitely valuable – the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

 


*This article was first published as “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem” on the 24th Dec 2021 by Luke Hulley on his personal blog.

 


References

[1] Center Church, pp. 126-27

[2] This is an indirect quotation taken from Engaging with Keller, p. 35

[3] Quoted in Cathy L. Grossman, ‘Has the notion of “sin” been lost?’, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-03-19-sin_N.htm, 3/19/2008 (accessed 24 December 2021)

[4] Reason for God, p. 76

[5] Reason for God, p. 69.

[6] I am borrowing this analogy from Schweitzer in his brilliant essay entitled ‘Brimstone-Free’ Hell: a new way of saying the same old thing about judgment and hell?’

[7] Quoted from CNN, ‘Tutu urges leaders to agree climate deal’, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/12/15/ctw.tutu.climate.interview/index.html, 12/15/2009 (accessed 24 December 2021)

[8] Quoted by huffpost, ‘God is not a Christian’, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/god-is-not-a-christian_b_869947, 8/1/2011 (accessed 24 December 2021)

[9] Philosophy Dungeon, ‘Karl Barth: The Story of God’, https://philosophydungeon.weebly.com/karl-barth.html, (accessed 24 December 2021)

Luke leads one of the Joshua Generation Church congregations in South Africa. He is married to Zandile, and they have a daughter, Namile. Luke was a passionate school teacher for six years but now takes care of God’s kids full-time. He is also a writer when he has time. Follow Luke on Facebook.

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