I’m personally interested by discussions over how to engage culture. The discussions seem to challenge one’s theology and methodology all at the same time.
And so I was recently drawn (of all places) back to Calvin’s Institutes. Last year we opened Calvin and studied his thought and theology. As a man ministering under a hostile climate, Calvin applied theology to his contemporary culture. Though separated by centuries and continents, I’ve learned to respect Calvin on matters of engaging culture.
In an age where the message itself is molded by the contours of culture, worldview interpretation needs an unshaken, eternal context. It seems Calvin was aware of this, too.
Calvin was aware that for genuine Christian piety to take root, our worldview (and even our self-identity) must be rooted in the character of God. It’s in Him that we see our own sin, and in Him that we see our frailty, in Him that we see our need for the Savior.
Notice Calvin’s opening words in his magnum opus—“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
We find eternal truth by looking at ourselves, not because we are the final reference point, but because in ourselves we can feel and experience the miseries of personal sin. We feel the “teeming horde of infamies” and are driven by our “unhappiness” to long for something outside of us. It’s in our perception of our personal sin and misery that this proper self-knowledge “not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”
By saying that we know God by first knowing ourselves is not Calvin’s attempt to make man the centerpoint of theology. Calvin uses self-knowledge of personal sin and unworthiness to point us towards God. By pointing us towards God, our reference is pushed beyond the sphere of cultural fluctuation.
By knowing ourselves truly, and assessing ourselves honestly, we are faced with our own frailty, sinfulness, unhappiness, and misery. Self-knowledge drives us to God.
Calvin’s next section opens with these words, “man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” By starting with God, and working backwards to interpret my heart, I will discover the hypocrisy or the “empty image” of self-righteousness. In the light of God’s holiness, I see my sinfulness and the rebellious tendencies of my wicked heart. As Calvin says, “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”
See, the ultimate reference point for my life is not “me.” It’s not my preference, and it’s not the shifting cultural interpretations of God. The ultimate reference point for my life, my soul, the church, and the eternal hope of our generation, is found in the supremacy of our eternally unchanging God as he reveals himself.
Calvin illustrates this point by looking at the self-effacing, self-discovery of Job. You’ll recall Job’s self-understanding and perspective gets turned on its head after God asks the questions. As Calvin says, “The story of Job, in its description of God’s wisdom, power, and purity, always expresses a powerful argument that overwhelms men with the realization of their own stupidity, impotence, and corruption (Job 38:1-ff).”
It was not in dialogue with friends that Job discovered himself. God’s one-way communication about his supremacy brought about Job’s true self-discovery.
I’m not opposed to communicating carefully to our culture. Certainly, we need to be sensitive to our hearers. But I would also argue what makes us relevant to contemporary culture is a commitment to explaining the supremacy of God (i.e. the priority of one-way proclamation in preaching).
Next time we’ll look at an example of how the preaching of the supremacy of God dominated the engagement of one non-Christian culture.