The Bible, Theology, and National Development (Part Two)

© 2015 Robert Osburn

As my fingers poised to begin this first sentence, my eyes peeked up at the bookshelf above me, and there it is…Education and National Development: A Comparative Perspective (2nd Ed.), by Fägerlin and Saha (1989).   I had just begun reading this textbook in one of my international education courses at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 2001 when 9/11 forever changed our American consciousness.  You could say that I have a history with this book.

Its very secular approach to national development left us without explanations for the planes that rammed the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, all in the name of Islamic superiority and jihad.  Radical Islam’s theory of development was, and is, terrifying.

Part of my quest since those earnest days of PhD coursework has been to somehow offer a Christian theory of development that is grounded in the biblical text and orthodox theologians from the time of the Church Fathers to the work of people like John Piper, N.T. Wright, and others in our day.  This two-part series summarizes what I have learned.

In Part One, I proposed that key themes in a Christian vision for national development include the idea of God's reign over the nations (He is not a tribal God), the Kingdom of God (which is a “now, not yet” reality), and the cross and crown of Christ (courageous, gutsy servant leadership points to Christ’s Lordship over nations).  In Part Two, I suggest there are four more themes…

4.     The cultural mandate

Dutch theologian, university president, journalist, and politician Abraham Kuyper was one of the first to recognize that embedded in the Genesis 1:26-28 was language about humans exercising dominion and ruling: a cultural mandate.  That is, humans, made in God’s image, are designed to steward God’s creation and shape its potential, to protect the environment and produce culture so that humans and all of creation can flourish.  Or, to put it simply: Humans are supposed to care for creation and create culture.

Lest there be confusion about the word “culture,” let me be clear about what I mean: Culture is everything that humans do when we combine God-given rationality and creativity with the structures and elements that God built into creation.  For example, sand (an element in God’s creation) + rationality and creativity = silicon, which is a basic building block in all computers and electronic technology (culture).  There are billions of examples of culture---laws, books, architecture, tractors, farming, sewer systems, etc.--- where humans transcend the natural world to make culture. 

Those unredeemed and without Christ (also enslaved to sin) often create culture in deformed, dysfunctional, and damaging ways (like flying planes into buildings). The follower of Christ, by contrast, conceives and crafts methods and models for better protecting what God has given us in our natural environment while simultaneously utilizing what God has created in those environments in order to make cultural products (or, artifacts) that promote healthy, growing, developing societies.  When evangelists do their work, as I suggested in an earlier blog, nations revitalize when humans regenerate.

5.     The Incarnation

It’s not enough, however, to know that God has given humans a cultural mandate.  Sin has immense powers to distort, and so throughout history humans pursuing national development have either prioritized the spirit (as do most spiritual religions other than Christianity and Judaism) or matter (as happened with most Western materialist religions or philosophies like scientific naturalism).  In the former, the material realm is either destroyed (as has happened where radical Islamic jihadists have advanced) or ignored.  In the latter, the spiritual realm is undermined (as in many of our universities) or ignored by those who make public policy.

What the Incarnation teaches us is that, because God became man and took on human flesh (John 1:14), national development requires attention to the human spirit (religion and education) as much as it requires attention to material products (technology and business).  As I suggested in a blog from several months ago, those who understand and appreciate both dimensions of reality---precisely because Jesus, in His Incarnation, embodied body and spirit---make their nations flourish.  The rest struggle and sputter for lack of attention to either spiritual or material dimensions of development, or both.

6.     God cares about nations as much as persons

 250 years ago, no one would have seen the need to identify this theme. Enlightenment philosophies, however, achieved a major coup in the history of humanity when they managed to convince academics and the masses that what we do in private has nothing to do with what we do in public.  Starting with John Locke’s efforts to find peace by making religion no longer the basis for national unity, and then with Immanuel Kant’s determination to make ethical duties completely separate from factual knowledge, and finally on to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s determination that religion was largely a matter of emotion and intuition, the net effect was to confine Christianity to private regions of the soul while simultaneously excluding it from the public square.  So, what had once been Election Day sermons, as well as sermons about matters of public importance and deliberation, became sermons that exclusively appealed to personal need, personal ethics, and personal salvation.  A purely biblical understanding of salvation, by contrast, says that both persons and nations need saving, not just one or the other.      That English Bibles use the word nation (or derivatives) over 800 times ought to make plain that nations are the object of God’s concern, as much as individual persons.  Nations begin appearing in Genesis 10 and conclude rather dramatically with many references to nations and their destinies in the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation.  Since national development seems to be God’s concern, so should it be ours. And, furthermore, we and our pastors ought not to fear conversation over matters political.

7.     Salt and Light

Christians have long jerked to action when confronted with Jesus’ brilliant metaphors to describe the way His followers are to effect the nations: They are to be “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).   Most Bible scholars will agree that as “salt,” Christians are to be both a force for social, cultural, and economic preservation as well as a stimulus that seasons, or improves the experience of every day life in societies.  If this is correct, then, followers of Christ both manage to preserve the best of a society’s heritage while also fostering improvements that enhance their prospects for human flourishing.  This, in fact, is how most redemptive change agents work: They appeal to God’s work in the past in order to foster a vision for a better future where humans flourish and God is glorified.

As for the concept of “light,” Jesus says that light is never meant to be used privately, but always in a very public way.  Christian faith, then, is a faith for the marketplace as much as for the soul.  And when it shines publicly (“before others”), it must expose both the believer’s efforts to make the society better (“that they may see your good deeds”) and to glorify God.  The dual spotlight effect was part of Jesus’ response to believers who were tempted to withdraw from society because of persecution (Matthew 5:10-12).  National development cannot proceed unless God’s people are visibly engaged in redemptive change while also giving God all the glory.

By way of conclusion, I suggest that radical Islam is not the only threat to the development of nations around the world; secularism is also a threat to human flourishing. As has been the case for most of human history this side of Christ’s return (except for the time before Christ and a secular interregnum in the 20th century), Christians marked by the seven themes discussed in this two-part blog have been the most important forces for national development.

Supplemental Note (3/3/15)

Bible teacher Bill Perry of Miami, Florida also draws attention to Matthew 13:33 as another metaphor (“leaven in the bread”) that complements the metaphor of “salt and light.”  His very credible argument is that this points to believers directly affecting the shape, size, and texture of the world about them.  Thus, believers, by their lives, can improve the quality of the surrounding society.

 

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