My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Carson serves up reminder after reminder that the question of context is all-important both in the interpretation of scripture and in its application to our current situation(s). Where Niebuhr is a reductionist, the Bible calls for—at different times and in different situations, not least in different “dispensations” or redemptive-historical eras—cultural transformation, participation, or opposition as appropriate.
I love Carson, but I do feel that this book meandered a bit. He seemed to be incisively critiquing everyone hither and yon, and reading an astonishing number of books on every conceivably related topic, but he did not offer much of a positive vision. That’s the only reason I gave him three stars. I expected more from Carson.
If there were two things that he did contribute positively to my understanding, they were 1) the shoring up of the idea that one must understand the Bible redemptive-historically in order to apply it properly, and 2) the simple reminder that Christians in Malaysia or Botswana or Hungary might legitimately develop a different theological apparatus for dealing with issues of Christ and culture.
This is a book packed with individual insights that do not add up to a sum greater than those parts. But perhaps that’s Carson’s point: we are not to expect a solution to the cultural and political “tensions” in which God has placed us, not until he has put all things under Christ’s feet—”no political structure is a permanent ‘solution’ to the tension” (207). The very last words in the book are these:
We will live in the tension of claiming every square inch for King Jesus [as Abraham Kuyper said], even while we know full well that the consummation is not yet, that we walk by faith and not by sight, and that the weapons with which we fight are not the weapons of the world (2 Corinthians 10:4). (228)
As an addendum, here’s a quote I want to type out for my own benefit:
It is unwise to speak of “redeeming culture”: if we lose the unique significance bound up with the redemption secured by Christ in his death and resurrection, we lose the ongoing tension between Christ and culture that must subsist until the end. ¶ Yet it is possible so to focus on the rescue and regeneration of individuals that we fail to see the temporally good things we can do to improve and transform some social structures. One does not abolish slavery by doing nothing more than helping individual slaves. Christian educational and academic structures may help countless thousands develop a countercultural way of looking at all reality under the Lordship of Christ. Sometimes a disease can be knocked out; sometimes sex traffic can be considerably reduced; sometimes slavery can be abolished in a region; sometimes more equitable laws can foster justice and reduce corruption; sometimes engagement in the arts can produce wonderful work that inspires a new generation. When such things become part of an inherited set of assumptions passed on to the next generation, they have become part of the culture; they have effected some cultural change. Of course, none of these good things is guaranteed to be enduring; none brings in the consummated kingdom. Yet in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city [Jer. 29], doing good to all people (even if we have special responsibility for the household of faith), is part of our responsibility as God’s redeemed people in this time of tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” (217–218)
If Carson doesn’t want to call those acts in that list “redemptive,” perhaps it’s not a big deal—but I’m not sure what other term I’d use. If in fact most people (in my experience) who talk explicitly about “redeeming the culture” are triumphalistic, naive about the effects of the fall, or are sloganeering bandwagon jumpers (or all three), then perhaps care is called for in the use of “redemption” with an object like “culture.” But perhaps we could stop short of an outright ban?