Ok, so we’ve noted the danger of fiting Jesus into a pre-fab system of truth. We don’t want to do that. But Missy has asked the $64 000 question. It’s basically this: What do we do when speaking to a non-Christian – isn’t it desirable at least sometimes to bring Christ to them according to their preferred programme??
I’m not going to be able to answer this very well. But I’m just going to give some thoughts as they occur and then I’d love if others chimed in with how they go about this.
My first thought is this: If we’re doing evangelism then we are necessarily relating Christ to non-Christian thought-forms. Even if all we do is read out the sermon on the mount it will be heard from within a pre-existing mindset. What’s more it will be heard as remarkably similar, if not completely continuous, with human philosophies. Think about it. We all live in a universe made by, through and for Christ and which proclaims Him in every detail. Everyone is working with the same conceptual raw materials and can do no other than come up with some re-arrangement of Christian truth. When the pure stuff is brought to bear on discussion people will say ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s just like X.’
But is it? And is it ever true to say to a person ‘You know it is just like X. And I’ll add Y and Z to your X and we’ll build towards saving knowledge of Christ.’
Well let’s think about the nature of truth. Paul says we find truth in Christ – hidden in Him in fact (Eph 4:21; Col 2:3). Jesus says He is truth (John 14:6) and even goes so far as to say that God’s word (which He also calls ‘truth’) when not related to Him, leaves people in terrifying ignorance. (John 5:39f; 17:17).
Truth is relative. It stands in strict relation to Christ the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon). His subjectivity is the one objectivity. What is there outside of Him in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden? Rearrangements of Christian reality yes – but because of that re-arrangement they are rendered blasphemous falsehoods. The true test of a proposition is not its conformity to an abstract notion of reality or reason or scientific law. The true test is its relatedness to Jesus.
It is simply not the case that discrete parcels of truth lie around the universe largely intact. It is even less true that sinful humanity has some capacity (or inclination!) to assess these propositions, divorced as they are from Christ. It’s outright Pelagian heresy to imagine that such ‘discrete propositions’ and such ‘objectively assessed’ truth will lead a person to Christ. Christ leads us into the truth. Study of abstract truth does not lead us to Christ.
Now, what about non-Christian philosophies? Can a Christian take a sentence from Homer (either Simpson or the poet!) on their lips and use it to testify to Christ? Of course! But in doing so they have vindicated Christ not Homer. They have not given testimony to the rightness of that proposition in its own context. They have commandeered it and pressed it into Christ’s service – the service it should have always rendered. This is precisely the language of 2 Corinthians 10:5 – taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.
In this verse Paul paints the picture of these renegade ‘thoughts’ that have gone AWOL from Christ. We arrest them and press them back into the Lord’s service. But what we don’t do is grant these thoughts a civilian existence, as though they’ll do the Lord’s service no matter what uniform they’re wearing. No. Either they’re in obedience to Christ (explicitly wearing the uniform) or they’re a pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).
Ok, but now we’re back to the inescapable problem. Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error. Now here comes Christ the Truth. And we’ve already conceded that the non-Christian cannot but hear Christ according to their presupposed notions. So what do we do?
Well here’s one tempting response. Simply oppose everything they say. They buy into post-modernism – we counter with modernism. They’re comfortable with irrational claims – we respond with rationalism. They say ‘truth is relative’ – we insist ‘truth is absolute.’ They indulge in immorality – we preach morality. Well you may well get a discussion going. But have you brought them to Christ? Or to the 1950s?
Tim Keller ministers among the groovy lefties of Manhattan. What’s his approach? Traditional religious values? No, as he likes to say the bible is not left wing or right wing – it’s from above. Whatever we say into these debates must make that clear.
Another thought. Jesus did not come onto the world stage addressing ‘universal human concerns’. He wasn’t born into the Areopagus as the Ultimate Philosopher. He did not open with: ‘We all know the truth about relationships, money, power etc. I’ve come to bring you the ultimate experience of these.’ No. He comes specifically and almost exclusively onto the Jewish scene, addressing Jewish hopes and concerns. He comes as Messiah into a very specific, encultered setting which He had been meticulously preparing for Himself for centuries. A people had been formed, a law had been given, a land, kings, prophets, priests, the Scriptures. And the understanding, ideals, hopes and problems of this people are actually quite strange to the natural ear.
They worried about ceremonial cleanness and atoning sacrifice; about land and exile; about Sabbath and the throne of David. They were a particular people with particular patriarchs and a particular God called Yahweh who was (and is), among other things, their tribal deity. They were concerned about His particular promises – His covenant – and their particular fulfilment. The Jesus-shaped hole at the heart of Israel was a very peculiar shape indeed – at least to modern sensibilities. It is, in many ways, very different to what contemporary evangelists consider as the Jesus-shaped hole of today’s ‘enquirer’.
And so when the LORD incarnate comes as His own Prophet, He does a couple of peculiar things that we modern evangelists don’t really do. First He comes in fulfilment of the Scriptures. All the Gospel writers do this but Matthew especially introduces Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament. Here is the One at the centre of this history and this people and these hopes. Do we present Jesus like that?
The other peculiar thing Jesus does is to begin by saying ‘Repent and believe the gospel.’ That’s not His punchline – that’s His opener. ‘Repent and believe the gospel’ He commands. And then He unpacks the life of the kingdom. On those terms He speaks of relationships, money, power etc. First the beatitudes – the gatehouse to the kingdom – then a description of this kingdom life.
What would evangelism look like that followed this pattern? Something like this I think: “You’ve been speaking to me about love / freedom / fear / power / addiction / sexuality / abortion / capital punishment / healthcare / education / the state / animal rights / whatever. Jesus has a lot to say on those issues but I’m going to have to back up from our discussion and give you a bird’s eye view. Let me give you the bible’s view on X in three minutes.” If your friend isn’t willing to do this then they’re not willing to have a serious discussion anyway. Present your biblical theology of the issue with Jesus at the centre. Now Jesus is your non-negotiable. He is the vantage point from which you address the subject. He is not in question – everything else is. Even use language like “For the sake of argument, work with me on this. I’m describing Christ’s universe – He made all things, He came into the world to reconcile them etc etc… Doesn’t that explain perfectly what we find when it comes to X?’
What you don’t want to do is say ‘X is absolutely true. Now please investigate Jesus and I hope you find that He fits the criteria already established by X.’ I find Karl Barth’s warning on this particularly salient:
The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)
Anyway I’ve got a few more things to say but I’ve rambled on too long. Maybe a worked example or two would help. Perhaps that’s what I’ll blog next.
But I’ll leave it there for now. What do you think?