In the first post in this series we noted the supremacy of God and how a proper theology unlocks our true self-identity. Job learned this lesson. On the other hand, the only way a sinner can preserve a life of unbelief is to suppress the true character of God. The Apostle Paul explains this in the opening chapter of Romans.
How amazed I am that God broke into the life of this Pharisee so I could behold his supremacy, see the depth of my sin, be broken, and embrace the cross as my only eternal hope! In nothing I’m saying in these posts do I want to self-righteously stand over those in unbelief. It’s only by God’s grace that I’m saved. I hope you feel the same.
Let me move on to a broader topic.
As important as it is that we identify with the contours of culture I think we would be mistaken to miss the reality that an honest understanding of God precedes an accurate self-identity. Calvin was right here. And so at some level it seems perplexing that we exert so much time identifying with those who remain yet un-self-identified. We should become all things to all men, yet in loving those in our culture I believe includes helping those in our culture develop a self-identification. And this self-identification is forged by the un-suppressed supremacy of God—a work of grace through Scripture.
Supremacy of God in culture
But let me get into a specific illustration. Today I want to take this principle of self-discovery in light of God’s supremacy into one specific non-Christian cultural context. I don’t think there’s better illustration in Scripture than Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34.
After having a look around Athens—a city “given over to idols”—Paul was summoned by the city’s intellectual elite (v. 16).
The content of Paul’s address is striking. Here we find no lengthy philosophical defense of monotheism. Paul opens with no apologetic for his source of ultimate truth (Scripture). Amazingly there is no mention of the cross, either (though we can assume Paul got to this point quickly with those who followed him after the sermon). As we listen in to the message we hear a clear, bold, and blunt exhortation of the supremacy and transcendence of God.
We cannot miss the content of Paul’s engagement of this non-Christian culture.
Paul tells them God is not created but the creator of all things (v. 24). God is not domesticated and caged into religious temples (v. 24). Nor is God like some idol produced by human crafting (v. 29). God needs nothing from us. In fact, we receive all from him and it’s only in him that we live and move (vv. 25, 28). God has planted all the races of the earth and marked out the boundary lines of the nations (v. 26). God is over all. And this God is sending his judge (Christ) back into these races and nations to punish all unrighteousness (v. 31).
Paul preaches to the Athenians that God was before them, God planted them, God is free from them, God is the reason for their existence, God now reigns over them, and God is returning to judge them. Wow. Notice how Paul, in expressing the supremacy of God, defines this supremacy in relation to those in the Athenian culture! Paul is helping them to form a true and biblical self-identification in light of God’s supremacy.
I take Paul’s example to mean that into arenas of intelligent non-Christians, God’s spokesmen are commissioned to speak boldly of God’s supremacy. Which is to say our faithfulness (and fruitfulness) does not hinge on the closeness for which our theology conforms to cultural expectations, but rather on the faithfulness of our articulation of the thrice-holy God in his transcendence above culture.
This preaching of God’s supremacy as the hope of culture is challenged (as you would expect). In 2005 a prominent emergent church figure published a book on preaching with the aim of replacing the terminology of one-way communication in the church (like “preaching” and even “speaking”) for the phrase “progressional dialogue.” Obviously, his intent was deeper than clarified semantics.
In Acts 17, Paul had the perfect opportunity for “progressional dialogue” and he chose to “preach” the supremacy of God. His example lives on for us today.
Theology of Theology
In part I want to see my generation of Christians develop a theology of theology. What I mean is that in our day the term “theology” has become a synonym for our articulation of God. This however is not, strictly speaking, an accurate definition. In Revolutions in Worldview (edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker) John Currid writes,
“The term theology—a combination of two Greek words: theos (god) and logos (word)—in the biblical worldview is not a word about God or man’s thoughts about God—what some people call religion—but properly speaking is God’s word to man about himself.” (p. 43)
Our engagement with contemporary culture is theological. As our reference point, the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-glorious, and eternal God ultimately transcends cultural influence and contemporary analogy. It’s helpful to remember that theology is not merely how we can explain God, but how God has chosen to explain himself. As Job discovered, God is not interested in “progressional dialogue.” God is interested in proclaiming his supremacy and he uses preachers and pulpits to this end.
John Piper notes in his excellent book The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker, 1990):
“The keynote in the mouth of every prophet-preacher, whether in Isaiah’s day or Jesus’ day or our day, is ‘Your God Reigns!’ God is the King of the universe; he has absolute creator rights over this world and everyone in it. Rebellion and mutiny are on all sides, however, and his authority is scorned by millions. So the Lord sends preachers into the world to cry out that God reigns, that he will not suffer his glory to be scorned indefinitely, that he will vindicate his name in great and terrible wrath. But they are also sent to cry that for now a full and free amnesty is offered to all the rebel subjects who will turn from their rebellion, call on him for mercy, bow before his throne, and swear allegiance and fealty to him forever. The amnesty is signed in the blood of his Son.” (p. 23)
And earlier Piper wrote,
“I don’t mean we shouldn’t preach about nitty-gritty, practical things like parenthood and divorce and AIDS and gluttony and television and sex. What I mean is that every one of those things should be swept up into the holy presence of God and laid bare to the roots of its Godwardness or godlessness.” (p. 12)
I’m aware that preachers should think carefully about applying Scripture to their cultural scenarios. But we need to admit the content of the biblical proclamation has probably never fit nicely into any cultural context. In every age and in every culture, God alone is the final reference point for us to discover the nature of sin, the health of our souls, and the source of all our good.
The preacher who proclaims the supremacy of God from the pulpit will be classified as culturally irrelevant. It’s not just the preacher but the theologian, too (as we will see next time), who feels the pressure to relinquish God’s supremacy in cultural engagement.
Related: Read part one of this series here.