- Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Why are these considerations of culture important? They're important simply because the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel which a person who is secularized will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like our being approached on the street by a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement who invites us to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Delhi, such an invitation would, I assume, appear quite reasonable and be serious cause for reflection. I fear that evangelicals appear almost as weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, or Paris as do the devotees of Krishna.
What awaits us in North America, should our slide into secularism continue unchecked, is already evident in Europe. Although the majority of Europeans retain a nominal affiliation with Christianity, only about 10 percent are practicing believers, and less than half of those are evangelical in theology. The most significant trend in European religious affiliation is the growth of those classed as "non-religious" from effectively 0 percent of the population in 1900 to over 22 percent today. As a result evangelism is immeasurably more difficult in Europe than in the United States. Having lived for thirteen years in Europe, where I spoke evangelistically on university campuses across the continent, I can personally testify to how hard the ground is. It's difficult for the gospel even to get a hearing.
The United States is following at some distance down this same road, with Canada somewhere in between. If the situation is not to degenerate further, it is imperative that we shape the intellectual climate of our nation in such a way that Christianity remains a live option for thinking men and women.
It is for that reason that Christians who depreciate the value of apologetics because "no one comes to Christ through arguments" are so shortsighted. For the value of apologetics extends far beyond one's immediate evangelistic contact. It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women.
In his article "Christianity and Culture," on the eve of the Fundamentalist Controversy, the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen solemnly warned,
"False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion."1
Unfortunately, Machen's warning went unheeded, and biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closet of Fundamentalism. Anti-intellectualism and second-rate scholarship became the norm.
Already in his day, Machen observed that "many would have the seminaries combat error by attacking it as it is taught by its popular exponents" instead of confusing students "with a lot of German names unknown outside the walls of the university." But to the contrary, Machen insisted, it is crucial that Christians be alert to the power of an idea before it reaches its popular expression. The scholarly method of proceeding, he said,
"is based simply upon a profound belief in the pervasiveness of ideas. What is to-day a matter of academic speculation begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity."2
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