Think Theology says on it’s website that it is a collaboration of thinkers and writers who are passionate about the Church, and who enjoy spending time wrestling with deep theological questions and helping others to engage with them. We liked the sound of this, so we took a look.

Alongside the core team, there are some 35 well-known and respected Christian thinkers and guest writers contributing to the content of the site. These include Andrew Wilson, Chine Mbubaegbu, Jennie Pollock, Guy Millar and many others.

Find out more about Think Theology here.

The site looks at a range of topics and current issues. Key themes include apologetics, church history and hermeneutics. Within each of these, and beyond many famous theologians and commetators are referenced and difficult topics tackled such as culture, politics, coronavirus, ethics, Jesus, heidelberg catechism, books, church, prayer, sexuality and many more!

Below are shown the latest few blog posts from the site:

Think Theology Keeping up to date with papers and blog articles from the Think Theology website.

  • The Negative World is the Internet
    by Andrew Wilson on 14th June 2024

    Aaron Renn's concept of the "negative world" has never sat right with me, although that may just be because I'm not American. If you're new to it, the idea is that there have been three stages in secularisation: the positive world (up to 1994), where society at large has a positive view of Christianity; the neutral world (1994-2014), where Christianity is neither privileged nor disfavoured; and the negative world (2014-present), where being a Christian is a clear social negative, especially among elites. No doubt some of my scepticism comes from my own experience, in which Christianity was definitely not positively (or even neutrally) treated in my teenage years; given that Renn is talking about America, this is neither here nor there. But I don't think that's all of it. Would that framing sound plausible if you lived in New York or San Francisco in the early nineties? If you were African American? If you were on a university campus during the Iraq war? I can't be sure, but I have my doubts.That may be why I found Alastair Roberts’s recent article on it so interesting. His response is very different from mine, and much more interesting. The Negative World, he argues, is basically the Internet - and it is negative for everybody, not just Christians. Take your time: There is one huge missing piece in Renn’s account, its absence both glaring and baffling. While he rightly mentions the importance of digitization, which concentrates great power in a few online companies, he simply does not adequately wrestle with the impact of the Internet. Without considering the Internet, I do not believe that much of what Renn terms ‘negative world’ will truly make sense. Indeed, key inflection points in the wider adoption of the Internet coincide with some of the shifts that Renn identifies: global Internet use took off in the mid-90s and it was in the mid-2010s that the age of the mobile Internet arrived and social media reached its dominance. The shifts to neutral and negative world are certainly not monocausal, but I believe that the Internet is by far the more powerfully explanatory factor. The following is a rough sketch of some of the relevant ways in which I believe that its impact has played out: The early Internet radically changed the form of public discourse. Whereas broader cultural discourse had formerly been the preserve of a few, a realm protected by gatekeepers within elite institutions, publishing, media, and politics, the Internet started to open the conversation up further. As a growing realm of discourse, the Internet reduced the control of legacy media, the political and party establishments, academic institutions, and other such agencies, and the power of old liberal elites at their heart. Within the former cultural ecology, liberal elites were less threatened by hostile and unwelcome voices, which could more safely be siloed outside of mainstream discursive contexts or policed within them. The obscurity that people could enjoy outside of such mainstream discursive contexts was also a source of safety for them. To become a public voice, you would need to pass through credentialing and other gate-keeping institutions and agencies and demonstrate some degree of loyalty to the norms of the liberal establishment that they constituted. In many ways, this allowed for a more generous Overton Window. Liberalism’s confident culture of good faith and respectful disagreement was easier to maintain in a context where participation in public discourse was more reserved to those who had undergone extensive formation in its institutions, belonged to its elites, and honoured its norms, while more fringe or plebian voices lacked the same access to publicity and could safely be ignored. While people might have strong differences, they shared institutions and a broader liberal culture in common and were less likely to be seeking to destroy each other or burn it all down. In such a setting, despite political, religious, and ideological differences in society, there were still effective consensus-forming mechanisms and institutions, elite control over the dominant means of publication, and a confidence in a culture of persuasion. Legacy media, with its gatekeeping and credentialing, could restrict participation in the public to persons with formation in liberal discursive values, but the Internet changed this. Whereas positions might formerly have been represented in public by more erudite and polished advocates, the Internet opened realms of conversation in which differences could be discussed by the average Joe. Now people could talk more directly with people of different viewpoints. The earlier Internet was dominated by more intellectual, creative, and technologically literate males, who developed their own fora and typically male-coded cultures of argument. The liberal dream of a culture of persuasion began to sour in this context, however, especially as less intellectual persons started to go online ... People who had hoped for thoughtful and friendly debate encountered flamers, trolls, and fools. Instead of interacting with thoughtful exponents of different positions, you might unwittingly find yourself arguing with some anonymous obnoxious fourteen-year-old. Some of us might have been that fourteen-year-old. The world prior to the Internet was one in which people of different contexts were far less visible to each other. People could live within their own bubbles, with much less exposure to people and ideas outside of them. The Internet, however, started to pierce a lot of these bubbles, enabling people to look beyond their social worlds and to be formed in ideas and values and engage with people from outside of them. This weakened the power of those worlds to maintain internal norms and consensus; it also made it easier for dissidents to arrange movements within and against them. It also started to make formerly obscure bubbles easier for outsiders to look into. Among other things, these shifts increased the felt need for apologetics, for both outsiders and insiders. It also intensified the perceived threat that different bubbles could pose to each other. It was in such a context that a strong atheist movement started to emerge. More young people from Christian contexts were rejecting the bubbles in which they had grown up. And, especially following 9/11, more secular atheists were starting to look at the religious worlds of many of their compatriots as a threat. The belligerent New Atheist movement was a product of the earlier Internet culture, strongly male-coded and debate-driven. Alexander suggests that a loss of confidence in the power of persuasion led people to look for a ‘hamartiology’, an account of sin. The New Atheists came to believe that religion was at the root of people’s blindness and resistance to reality. They were strongly committed to the hard sciences and to a world of facts and reality. While very aggressive, they still tended to uphold liberal values of open discourse: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It seems to me that the rapid passing of New Atheism as a movement might be a difficult thing to explain within Renn’s three world framework. In the early 2010s, atheism discourse was everywhere online and then suddenly the movement failed and many of its leaders fell into disfavour. What happened? Alexander suggests that the New Atheist movement ‘seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement’, the hamartiology of the latter replacing that of the former. I think that Alexander is right that New Atheism largely shifted into social justice. However, I do not think that he adequately accounts for the mechanisms by which this happened: I think that the evolution of the Internet provides a far better explanation. The key shifts occurred around the time that Renn locates the movement into negative world. The earlier Internet had chiefly been a realm of words and ideas. Although there were intense circles of feminine-coded online activity, more masculine forms and cultures of discourse generally tended to be more defining of the Internet as it related to the ‘public’ realm (the ‘there are no girls on the Internet’ meme belongs to this era). The rise of social media radically changed the culture of the Internet. While the former Internet had been more anonymous and detached from offline identities and relationships, in the new social media age everyone was increasingly putting themselves online. Whereas the Internet had been a weird place with lots of anonymous strangers onto which you could go, now your real-life identity and relationships were online. It was no longer a Wild West into which you could wander or a secret friend to whom you could confide, but a virtual village in which you resided. The earlier Internet was also decentralized and unmapped, filled with obscure corners where you could find groups of strangers who shared some interest. Or you could set up your own online homestead with a blog, perhaps joining some friendly circle of fellow bloggers. The social media Internet completely changed this. In place of subscribing to RSS feeds, on the social Internet things were disseminated socially. ‘Virality’, ‘memes’, social media ‘mobs’, and other such concepts tried to wrestle with the novel results and forms of the emerging dynamics of the social Internet, where ideas spread along more tribal, reactive, and emotional trajectories. The social Internet made formerly obscure parts of the Internet visible to each other, collapsing formerly detached spaces into vast common planes of discourse, within which we were all potentially visible to everyone. In the social media Internet—which would be intensified by the mobile Internet—the distinctions between public and private, and those between political and personal started to fail. Before the advent of the social Internet, there were also strong feminine-coded worlds online. In particular, the worlds of fandom and fan fiction. The Internet gave a powerful voice to fan communities, who obsessively talked about, speculated concerning, created artwork relating to, and spun off their own fantasies from their favourite properties. Especially for young women, such contexts were realms within which they could theorize their identities, relationships, and worlds. The intimacy of the things that a young woman could confide of herself in such realms also gave them a social intensity and fierce protectiveness and sensitivity. Katherine Dee (Default Friend) has argued that it is impossible to understand the cultural shift to so-called ‘wokeness’, or what Wesley Yang has called the ‘successor ideology’, without appreciating the role that Tumblr in particular played. Tumblr was a step away from the more obscure worlds of earlier fandoms into a more visible and open world. I think Dee, perhaps the most perceptive commentator on such Internet subcultures, rightly appreciates the importance of Tumblr. However, it seems to me that the mainstreaming of Tumblr culture required larger social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which brought masculine and feminine forms of the Internet into more direct contact and collision with each other and led to the dynamics of the latter prevailing over the former. The immense popular user base of Facebook and the widespread use of Twitter among the commentariat, academics, and other public figures gave them immense power to shift the tone of the broader cultural conversation as platforms. And their social character meant that there was a concern for personal identity, relationships, and communal dynamics within them that one would not encounter to the same degree in former public realms. The intense self-reflexivity and theorization of identity and society encouraged by Tumblr and other such contexts could break out into the broader culture because Facebook and Twitter created flattened contexts of discourse, disrupting the oppositions between public and private and political and personal that would formerly have limited the spread of its discourses. As social media increasingly swallowed public discourse, it led to a growing preoccupation with the fragilized and bespoke identities of those who came of age online. Whereas the old context of liberal discourse was gatekept and bounded, distinguished from more social spaces, and operating according to more masculine-coded norms, the new discourse, occurring in social places, became preoccupied with feminine-coded sensitivities about identities, victimhood, and etiquette. The structurally egalitarian character of the new social media also made it very easy for authorities to be challenged and unsettled through group pressure. It made it a lot easier for marginal groups to organize across contexts, to make themselves visible to themselves and others, and to exert pressure upon majorities. The intense fandom culture also encouraged the rise of a fixation upon media representation of various groups and identities in various properties and powerful lobbies to press for them. Without the advent of social media, the shift to social justice and its more feminine-coded politics would probably not have occurred in the same way. In the New Atheist movement this shift initially played out in controversies such as that surrounding ‘Elevatorgate’ and in a migration of focus from discourse focused upon scientific and philosophical realities to its own internal dynamics and to issues of ‘social justice’: feminism, antiracism and racial justice, and the various concerns of the LGBTQ+ movement. The concerns of this politics were concerns that were more natural to an age dominated by Spectacle, where appearance and representation have increasingly taken the place of ‘everything that was directly lived’, and the personal and political are elided. In this context, the old confident liberalism has failed. The once bounded public square is bounded no longer. The participants in society’s discourses—at all levels—increasingly appear as victims and vulnerable persons requiring protection. A public square to which people are more directly exposed and in which they can more directly operate (perhaps to be followed by its evaporation) has set the stage for the passing of a culture of robust exchange of differing viewpoints, confident in a common reality. Much of the old liberal establishment has withered and lost its former confidence. The legacy media has shrunk and its authority diminished. Academics are more precarious in their employment and more conformist; there has been a rapid diminishment of political diversity in academia. Academic institutions are increasingly driven by the interests of administration and business. The old realms of the public square have been weakened and what has taken their place operates very differently, a small number of corporations exerting considerable power over it. More restrictive managerial oversight of societies without consensus reality but with repeated alienating and polarizing interactions is taking the place of the more open liberal societies of the past. Power has shifted to large corporate agencies, untrustworthy custodians of liberal values. The Overton Window is no longer the more expansive one of the old liberalism, but one that serves the interests of a new managerial elite, brokers of a social order for their dependent and biddable clients, whose constant petitioning of them in the hyper-politicized symbolic causes of their personal lives is rather less threatening than traditional politics might be. In many respects, it could be regarded as a depoliticization of people, so that the market can proceed unobstructed: ‘neoliberalism is social justice’. In the deluge of data characteristic of the Internet Age, the fact has died and, in its place, we have multiple competing narratives, with little allegiance to a grounding reality. The politics of such an age of spectacle and social media will tend to be ‘scissor’-politics, repeated narrative-driven polarization (Floyd, COVID, and Gaza are examples of such stories). In such a context, disdain, anger, resentment, and cruelty will tend to proliferate. Its reactivity will also encourage competing extremisms. Trump was a symptom and accelerant of such politics, among other things designed to attack the dignity that liberals might see in the office of the presidency. There is a great deal more that could be said about the impact of the Internet. However, I want to consider how it might relate to Renn’s negative world thesis. The development I have described weakened an old liberalism, reordered societal discourse, transformed the public square, elevated more feminine-coded values, fragilized communities and identities by making them more porous and exposed, thrust more of societal life into a collective Spectacle, and strengthened managerialist neoliberalism. It was not targeted against Christianity, though. In many respects, we all live in a negative world now. The loss of consensus reality, the failure of effective consensus-forming institutions, the extreme polarization of our politics, and the fragilization of our communities and identities leave everyone feeling exposed and vulnerable in new ways. No one thinks that they are winning. In other respects, the development has fallen especially hard upon particular groups. In America the place that Jews once enjoyed in the old liberal establishment, for instance, is rapidly shrinking and rising open antisemitism and less certain government policies concerning the state of Israel are signs of a loss of their cultural power. In such a context, it is easy for people to confuse some of the ways that the emerging order seems to threaten their groups with some ‘negative world’ hostility to the Christian faith. Responding to such a sense, it is easy for identitarian victimhood politics to elide Christian identity with fragilized cultural identities—with ‘white masculinity’, for instance—and to pursue sectarian politics in Christ’s name. As such politics impact the Church, they will tend to be both highly divisive, resistant to the Church’s concrete catholicity, and to compromise the moral integrity of the Church and the primacy of its bonds for the sake of effective political coalitions. Accentuating political tribalism offers a sort of security for anxious Christians, but at the cost of Christian faithfulness in preserving the peaceful bond of the Spirit in the Church. A key reservation I have about Renn’s thesis is that it might lead us to focus our attention upon ourselves and upon American society’s reduced hospitality to Christians and their faith. This is not without importance, but, in many respects what we are experiencing may be a particularly pronounced form of a more general societal malaise, much of it brought about or accelerated by the Internet. Recognizing this might equip us to think better about the manner of our response. For instance, we might think more carefully about how to guard our own lives, contexts, communities, and organizations from some of the more damaging dynamics of the Internet. We might also consider how the Church might function as an Ark for others, protecting them from the collapse of the former order and the threats of its successor.

  • 1994 and All That, 30 Years On
    by Matthew Hosier on 12th June 2024

    Ten years ago I wrote an essay reflecting on the events of twenty years before that: the ‘Toronto Blessing’, or ‘Present move of the Spirit’ of 1994. And here we are, ten years on from that essay and thirty years from 1994. (I appreciate there will be many readers of this blog too young to have any idea of what I am talking about!)In that previous essay I raised questions as to the extent that our spiritual experiences are conditioned by the culture in which we live. To what extent were the phenomena of 1994 a reflection of wider cultural currents of the time? Ten years on from those questions and observations I can both still detect traces of what happened in 1994 in the ‘ministry shape’ of churches with which I am involved; and if anything I am more convinced of the influence of the wider culture in our spiritual experience. Way back, in December 1993, I read Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield. This two volume biography of the great 18th century evangelist was very shaping in my life and ministry but it has only been recently, more than thirty years later, that I have picked it up and read it through again. It was only a few months after first reading it that the Toronto blessing swept through our churches and we were laughing, weeping, and falling over. I’m not sure to what extent I connected the dots with Dallimore’s descriptions of phenomena accompanying revival in the 18th century but it is fascinating to read his account and make those connections now. Wesley, and others, seem to have encouraged the same kind of external manifestations that we saw in 1994 – viewing them as evidence of God’s working. On the other hand, Whitefield, and others, discouraged them – viewing them as a fleshly distraction from the true work of God that risked bringing the revival into disrepute. A standout moment in Whitefield’s ministry was the revival at Cambulsang, Glasgow, in 1741-2. This provides an interesting mirror against which to hold the events of 1994. As John Arnott wrote at the time of the Toronto blessing, “The fruit produced in a person’s life is the…way to evaluate a spiritual experience.” What was the fruit of Cambulsang? And what the fruit of 1994? At Cambulsang, and nearby Kilsyth, were two faithful but uninspiring ministers, William McCulloch and James Robe. These men had laboured in the gospel for years but with little result. They were known for being dull communicators but in 1741 something changed. A fresh anointing fell upon these two men and a new spiritual hunger came upon their congregations. Central to this awakening was a conviction of sin. Robe reports, “bitter cries, groans, and the voice of their weeping.” Whitefield appeared on the scene in July 1742, preached three times in the space of ten hours and reported, “For about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling into deep distress, and expressing it in various ways…Their cries and agonies were exceedingly affecting.” The following Sunday came the famous Cambulsang communion service. Services were conducted over the whole weekend, culminating on the Monday, with constant preaching by a relay of ministers, and communion served on the Sunday. All this took place outdoors. Those wanting to take part in the communion were personally examined by a minister and if their ‘conversion and manner of life’ was deemed sufficiently genuine they were issued with a small metal token that gave access to the communion table. A month later Whitefield returned for another communion service. Thirty thousand were in attendance but only about three thousand were admitted to the table: “Worship began at 8.30 on the Sunday morning, and the last table was being served at sunset.” Dallimore states that there were two kinds of ‘emotional phenomena’ displayed during these services, “the outcrying and trembling among the unconverted and the ecstatic rejoicing among believers.” Not everyone was so affected though (Robe thought it to be one in five of the congregation) and Dallimore concludes, The bodily distresses were not encouraged, but when they occurred they were considered of value only inasmuch as they arose from a sorrow for sin so intense they could not be restrained. And what of the fruit? An accounting of the revival, written in 1871 relates, This work… embraced all classes, all ages, and all moral conditions. Cursing, swearing and drunkenness were given up by those who had come under its power. It kindled remorse for acts of injustice. It won forgiveness from the vengeful… It bound pastors and people together with a stronger bond of sympathy. It raised an altar in the household… It made men students of the Word of God and brought them in thought and purpose and effort into communion with their Father in heaven. True, there was chaff among the wheat, but the watchfulness of the ministers detected it, and quickly drove it away. And for long years afterwards, humble men and women who dated their conversion from the work at Cambuslang, walked among their neighbours with an unspotted Christian name, and then died peacefully in the arms of One whom they had learned in the revival days to call Lord and Saviour. What happened in Cambulsang in 1742 was of a different order to what we experienced in 1994. To be fair, this is why we described what was happening as a blessing rather than as a revival, but it does seem that we placed far too much emphasis on the phenomena. Rather than one in five displaying strong emotional phenomena we looked for everyone to do so. This made it difficult for the few who did not – I remember some individuals becoming very disillusioned because they were untouched amongst a sea of flailing and falling bodies. With hindsight, my perspective is that the focus on phenomena was a mistake: there was a great deal of chaff among the wheat. And, as I remember it, conviction of sin was almost entirely absent. There wasn’t any great turning of the unconverted to God. I concluded my 2014 essay with an observation about how culture affects our spiritual responses and then a question, An obvious question that arises for us out of this observation is at what point our cultural envelope becomes a hindrance to actively receiving the Spirit. Arguably some cultures are more open than others – would a 1970’s style charismatic renewal have been possible in the more straitlaced 1950’s? At the least, we should be alert to the importance of ‘discerning the times’ and aware of the impact of the wider culture upon us. Over the past few years there has been a lot of conversation about the church ‘impacting the culture’. It seems to me that the impact is rather more likely to be the other way around, and most of the time we do not even realise it. That is how culture works, even when we think of ourselves as charismatic. Over the past ten years there have been some cultural shifts that wash into our expectations and practices in the church. The therapeutic worldview has become increasingly dominant. Technology has more and more impact in peoples lives. There has been a growing suspicion of leadership. To what extent do these cultural realities affect and condition any move of God among us? In our current climate of individualism and leadership suspicion it is very hard to imagine a context in which ninety percent of a congregation would tolerate being kept from taking communion, or in which pastors would have the courage necessary to enforce it! Thirty years on there are things I am grateful for that came out of our experiences then, as well as things I would do differently now. But oh for a move of God that cuts through all our cultural realities and causes trembling among the unconverted and ecstatic rejoicing among believers.  

  • Body Matters in Genesis
    by Andrew Bunt on 10th June 2024

    Your body matters. That’s something I expect most readers of Think already know. There has been a surge of interest in the theology of the body in recent years, and for good reason: the prominence of various body-related topics in contemporary western culture has highlighted the need for us to think more deeply about bodies and what it means to be human.Many of us will have reflected on the goodness of our bodies; that as the creation of a good creator they can speak to us both about how we should live (ethics) and who we are (identity). And that they are core to what it means to be human, not secondary or irrelevant. Recently I’ve been struck by this again in the creation accounts. Obviously I’ve been aware before that in Genesis 1 God declares all creation good and then very good after the creation of humans. That would include human bodies and so our bodies are clearly good. But I’d never before noticed quite how strongly the creation accounts of Genesis stress the centrality of our bodies. Both of them seem to imply that bodies are central to what it means to be human. In Genesis 1, the first thing we are told about humans is that we are created in the image of God. The second is that we are created male and female (Genesis 1:27). What does it mean to be male or female? They are terms that speak of bodily forms – the way our bodies are structured to play one of two roles in reproduction. This is why the statement that we are created male and female is immediately followed by the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28). Male and female mean nothing apart from bodies. This means the second thing we are told about humans in Scripture – and so presumably a fairly important thing – is that we are embodied. Bodies, according to Genesis 1, are central to what it means to be human. They are central to who we are. In Genesis 2, it is striking that God first creates Adam’s body and then breathes life into him (Genesis 2:7). There is no Adam before the first body is created. The first human is not a disembodied being for whom a body is created, as if the body is just a container to hold our true self or a tool through which we can interact with the physical world. The body comes first. It is central to what it means to be human. Aware of this, I’ve been trying to be more careful of the language I use about our bodies and their relationship with our true self. We often use language that implies our bodies are separate to who we really are: ‘Your body is a gift from God’, implying that the core you exists separately to, or even prior to, your body such that that this you can receive a gift from God. On one level this is obviously overthinking things (I’m good at that!). I don’t think this statement, or others like it, is completely inaccurate or inappropriate.1 It’s a statement trying to communicate things that are true and important. But in a contemporary context – both cultural and Christian – where the body is so often devalued and seen as separate to our true self, there may be value in thinking very carefully about the language we use. So what can we say? I’m increasingly talking about us being created as bodies rather than being given a body as a gift, and as being bodies rather than having them (‘You don’t have a body. You are a body.’) I can already hear the responses. Has Andrew become a monist, believing we’re are only bodies and nothing else? No. I am a convicted dichotomist – we have a body and a soul/spirit (two words for the same thing; see Isaiah 26:9; Luke 1:46-47). I think that’s pretty clear in Scripture (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28). But those two parts are meant to be united. So while an ontological dichotomist (there are two parts to our being), I am a functional monist (those two parts are designed to work together as one). That the union and interworking of body and soul is God’s good intention can be seen from the problem of death. The problem of death isn’t that it’s the end of existence – because it isn’t. The problem with death is that it’s the (temporary) end of embodied existence. At death, body and soul are torn apart awaiting reunion at the resurrection (Genesis 35:18; Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8). Do the sorts of phrases I’m proposing run the risk of suggesting that our bodies are prior to our souls? Maybe. And that’s something I probably wouldn’t want to affirm. (I don’t think the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 can be used here as he could easily be an exceptional case!) But aware of the complexities of communication and the reality that we often have to make do with phrases that have some weaknesses, I think the statement ‘You are a body’ leans to the side indicated by Scripture. Our bodies are central, perhaps even primary, in who we are. In a time when both secular culture and popular Christian thinking have a tendency to undervalue the body and to overvalue the internal or non-physical (whether that’s called ‘true self’ or ‘soul’), I think it’s better to use the imperfect language that might help us to correct our imbalance. I’m trying it out at least. Your body matters. And so does the language you use about your and other bodies.

  • Releasing Artists To Renew Culture: A new course to help you engage with the arts
    by Think Team on 7th June 2024

    This is a guest post from Jonny Mellor A few years ago, the American pastor and theologian Tim Keller wrote, The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world.That’s quite a bold statement and a bit of a curveball for most of us. Art is a strange thing. Most people have an intuition that it is somehow important but almost nobody can articulate why! In fact, it’s quite hard to even define what art is. So, for most of us, art is regarded as rather peripheral and extravagant. The cherry, or at the most the icing, but certainly not the cake! So, why would a sensible fellow like Tim Keller make such an outrageous claim? Why would the church need art to reach the world? I run a network of artists called Sputnik Faith & Arts and we split our time between two pursuits. Some of our efforts are directed towards encouraging Christians who make art to keep going, to get better at it, to engage with audiences outside the church, and to keep following Jesus while they do it. The rest of the time, we find ways to explain to Christians who aren’t artists why we think Tim Keller hit the nail on the head. The problem is that art is so integral to human experience that we miss it. Imagine trying to explain the importance of water to a fish. It’s a bit like that. Secular anthropologists would mark the emergence of homo sapiens by the appearance of cave paintings. The Genesis creation story presents the first reported speech of a human being as a song, or at least a poem (Genesis 2:23). From the very beginning, we have created art. It’s fundamental to who we are. And we are surrounded by art. The pictures on your wall. The chair you sit on. The wallpaper on your walls. The architecture of your house. The design of your shoes. All produced by artists of one sort or another. And this is to say nothing of the digital worlds we inhabit. To imagine a world without art is to imagine a world without people. In the world. In the church. Anywhere. But how does art help us, as Christians, to reach the world with the gospel? We could ‘use’ art to package our message more attractively? To pull on the heartstrings? To get in under the radar? Well, we could. And sometimes we do. But this is, at best, the tip of the iceberg. Art keeps us human. It keeps us asking questions. It stops us drifting into tribalism and robotic pragmatism. It recognises the complexities of life and of God and of church and refuses to flatten the vibrant world that God has created. It reminds us of the abundant life that Jesus promised us, a life of love and generosity not of cold tradition and dogma. It keeps us human and allows us to connect with other humans as image bearers of our artistic God, resonating with other image bearers so as to lead them to find their rest in Him. I think that’s what Tim Keller meant. And, yes, it’s all a bit vague and mind boggling. It certainly also needs some unpacking. To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a resource that will hopefully help you to wrestle with this difficult but crucial topic. We’ve put together a course to explore how, as Christians, we might engage with the arts more constructively and support the artists in our communities and beyond. It’s called ‘Releasing Artists to Renew Culture’ and it’s been released through the Broadcast church planting network. It consists of 8 short videos that are accompanied by discussion questions and relevant artworks and Scriptures to help you think it all through. If you’re an artist, it’s for you. If you ‘don’t have an artistic bone in your body’, it’s for you too. If you’re a church leader who is lacking creative contributions to your exoskeleton, it’s especially for you. Engaging with the arts may not be at the top of your to do list. ‘Reaching the world’ may well be. Tim Keller thought the two things were more connected than we often think so why not watch the first video and see what you think? ——- Jonny Mellor is an elder at Churchcentral, Birmingham and also helps run Sputnik, a network of Christian artists. Sputnik works with artists and churches, and aims to rebuild the often damaged bridges that exist between them. To find out more, try: https://sputnikfaith.art

  • What Is Christian Nationalism?
    by Matthew Hosier on 29th May 2024

    As US electoral politics rumbles on in its current ugly form, one issue of significance is 'Christian Nationalism'. This, like its equal and opposite 'woke', is a term frequently used but not always properly understood. The team I serve on that gives a lead to the Advance movement of churches, asked Bryan Hart, from One Harbor Church in North Carolina, to write a paper for us exploring the subject. Bryan has done an outstanding job and while this paper was written primarily for the benefit of our movement it deserves wider circulation. For those in the States the subject has immediate and obvious relevance, but as what happens over there inevitably has an impact over here I'd encourage Brits to read it too. (NB I haven't included Bryan's many footnotes and hyperlinks here. If you'd like them please get in touch.)Introduction How should pastors respond to Christian Nationalism (CN)? This is a difficult question for two reasons. First, the term “Christian Nationalism” is not clearly defined and has a wide spectrum of applications, even within the US. Second, despite having no consistent definition, CN has rapidly become a lightning rod of attention in news, media, and evangelical circles. The volume is up, but the clarity is down. The goal of this paper is twofold. First, I survey several theories of CN currently in use: three negative criticisms and three positive defenses. As we will see, what one side condemns is not exactly what the other embraces. Second, I identify three critical issues that are being conflated (or ignored) within the CN rhetoric: the undefined political theology that characterizes much of current evangelical thought, the rise of political disengagement, and the influence of theological positions regarding eschatology and the Kingdom of God. Under the auspices of “responding to CN,” pastors are liable to make some significant missteps if these issues are not first recognized and faced on their own merits. Having clarified them, leaders will be in a better position to wrestle with the various strands of CN. Note: this paper addresses Christian Nationalism in America and from an American perspective. I cannot speak to the applicability of these insights to the rest of the world. Theories of Christian Nationalism CN, as a term, can be traced back to at least the Christian Nationalist Party of the 1940s. However, it reflects an ideology that runs back further, perhaps to the Spanish-American war.  According to Matthew McCollough, it was in that war that “messianic interventionism,” what he sees as a key ingredient to the development of CN and something beyond even the Manifest Destiny of the 19th century, was first embraced as “both Christian duty and providential destiny.”  The contemporary usage of CN terminology, however, has developed especially within the last ten years. Below I provide a brief survey of several definitions of CN, with the intention of demonstrating just how wide of a spectrum exists within the semantic domain of the term. I have categorized each presentation of CN as either “Negative” (critical of CN) or “Positive” (defensive of CN), and provided my own analysis of each. Negative Theories Perry and Whitehead write in their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States: “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”  They understand it as the syncretism of religion with political conservatism, nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the divine sanction of military action. The result is a framework “that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity.”  Three arguments are key to their thesis: 1. The polarization of American discourse is largely a result of CN. (For example, CN—and not “conservative Christianity”—explains the large numbers of conservative Christians who supported Donald Trump despite his moral failures.) 2. CN may be related to theological beliefs, political sympathies, views on race and gender, and so on—but it is not synonymous or reducible to any of those things. It is a distinct phenomenon that must be understood on its own terms. 3. CN does not equal Christianity or evangelicalism, and the former often influences Christian behavior in ways that are opposite to the latter’s legitimate practice. In Chapter 1, Perry and Whitehead identify four categories of relationship to CN: Rejectors, Resistors, Accommodators, and Ambassadors. (Interestingly, though CN’s Accommodators and Ambassadors are primarily political conservatives, not all of them are. CN is anchored on the right, but it spans the political spectrum.) Chapters 2 through 4 evaluate CN perspectives on power, boundaries, and order. Analysis: I find Perry and Whitehead’s definition of CN a helpful and, sadly, accurate description of much of what I have personally witnessed in the conservative South since 2016. In many respects, I share their alarm of the idolatrous relationship many Americans have with our nation. Of particular concern is their research which demonstrates the “take America back for God” rhetoric is actually not about pursuing Christian or religious purposes, but is about the retention of political power. We cannot ignore how many Americans see God as a means to partisan, political ends. That said, I have three criticisms of their book. First, I think at times they clumsily place too much conservative political action under the umbrella of CN. For example, they identify support of the wall on the Mexican border as “xenophobic.” This is a sweeping generalization of motive that dismisses the complexities and severity of the immigration crisis. Second, though CN is partially responsible for the polarization of American discourse, their volume leaves readers with the impression that it is mainly or even entirely responsible. This fails to account for the corrosive and divisive effect that the ideologies of the political left have had on American society, as well. Third, it seems they think that Christians are only to live out their faith as individuals; any attempt by Christians to pursue wider cultural or community change is liable to be charged as CN. In the conclusion to chapter 2, they write: “Christian nationalism mobilizes Americans to take positions on issues and rally behind candidates that will defend their cultural preferences, preserve their political influence, and maintain the “proper” social order.”  Are Christians not to have positions on issues, choose candidates, or have cultural preferences? Does not every American have a vision of some kind of social order? It would seem that Perry and Whitehead are insisting on Christian political disengagement and that anything else amounts to CN. This is a key problem in the discussion about CN, and I address it below. Dan Partland & Rob Reiner have produced a documentary called God and Country which warns about the rise of Christian Nationalism. Framed from a leftist position, they have similar concerns to Perry and Whitehead and interview the likes of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Phil Vischer, Russell Moore and David French, all of whom have been vocal in their own streams about the dangers of Christian nationalism. In the film, David French defines CN as: “A deeply felt emotional connection between the fate of the nation and the fate of the church. So when someone says, “America is in danger,” at the heart level people are also thinking the church is in danger, my faith is in danger, my religious liberties —it’s all a package.” Phil Vischer says, “At a very basic level, it’s the belief that America has a very special, God-ordained role in human history. But, here’s the big issue, and it’s a big issue for America: if I have decided that America is irreplaceable in God’s story, has a role to play that only America can play in God’s story, and democracy gets in the way, then democracy has to go.” Indeed, pointing to the violence of January 6, 2021, the documentary presents CN as comparable to Nazism and a threat to both pluralism and democracy itself. In a podcast interview with Mike Cosper of Christianity Today, Partland and Reiner argue that CN is a movement that is essentially utilitarian, “a political movement that uses an issue, whatever the issue is, to get what you want, and you’re willing to do anything for it. You’ll do it at the point of a gun.” Analysis: Like Partland and Reiner, I remain horrified at what happened on January 6 and the Christian trappings used in its justification. Many of the clips of “America-first” sermons throughout the documentary are cringe-inducing examples of what Perry and Whitehead have described. (Andrew Whitehead is interviewed in the film.) However, while I also support a broadly pluralistic society (since the gospel fares well in a free market), pluralism is not a transcendental good, which Partland and Reiner seem to think it is. In fact, there is some irony that the documentary presents democracy and pluralism as practically sacred—revealing another kind of syncretism. Furthermore, in the podcast, Reiner goes so far as to say that the teachings of Jesus are essentially identical to what is found in the rest of the world’s religions. They may understand something of CN, but they clearly misunderstand Christianity. I found Trevin Wax’s comments at TGC particularly helpful: “In the end, these filmmakers are right to spot the danger in a political movement that harnesses and instrumentalizes the Christian faith toward some other end. Unfortunately, they can’t see they’re doing the same thing. They want to harness and instrumentalize the parts of Christianity that resonate with them as a way of bettering society according to their core, left-wing values.” The fact is, criticisms of CN are not launched from nowhere—it is significant that many come from the political/cultural left, and are therefore fraught with their own biases and blindspots—and in this case, even a profound misunderstanding of what Christianity is. Heidi Przybyla, an investigative journalist for Politico, has significantly broadened the scope of CN. In an interview on MSNBC, she claimed that anyone who thinks that human rights come from God (rather than the government) is a Christian nationalist—effectively indicting a significant percentage, if not the majority, of Americans in US history. In an article she co-wrote for Politico, warning about Trump’s desire to “infuse” CN into his second term, she criticized how Christians are using natural law: “Natural law is the belief that there are universal rules derived from God that can’t be superseded by government or judges. While it is a core pillar of Catholicism, in recent decades it’s been used to oppose abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and contraception.” Analysis: The Declaration of Independence unambiguously asserts: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Such ignorance of history and civics, by an investigative journalist no less, should be of concern to all Americans. But the impact on Christianity is significant: now even basic Christian teaching and the application of natural law to long-standing ethical concerns are being labeled as Christian Nationalism. (This also calls into question the viability of the CN terminology, since it now appears that it can mean anything to anyone.) Positive Theories Patrick Schreiner wrote an essay for TGC titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Christian Nationalism.” Under the section titled ‘The Good: The Influence of Christianity in American Civil Life,’ Schreiner writes, “For some, Christian Nationalism simply means that Christianity has influenced and should continue to influence the nation.” Though he admits that CN rarely refers to this limited sense, he says of it: “In the best sense, this form of Christian Nationalism doesn’t attempt to dominate the political process or to make the nation completely Christian but seeks instead to bring change by persuasion. Rather than trying to overthrow the government, adherents advocate their cause by supporting laws, electing candidates, podcasting, writing, and developing think tanks. They won’t force their opinions, but they also won’t back down from arguing for them.” Analysis: Schreiner’s article is more focused on the Bad and the Ugly of CN, but I include his brief remarks on the Good because they reflect the fluidity of CN’s usage and also demonstrate the tension that exists in competing definitions. What is being described here is a fairly traditional take on Christian civic engagement. Schreiner intends it to be a positive, restrained sense of CN, but what he is describing could be included within the pejorative use of the term by those who see any Christian activism as problematic. Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker co-wrote Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations. It is a biblical defense of CN, which they define as follows: Christian Nationalism is loving your neighbor. Who is our neighbor? Our fellow citizens and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Loving them means protecting them from foreign interests, alien worldviews, and hostile invaders. Christian Nationalism means placing the interests of your neighbor and your home above the interests of foreigners in foreign nations. This doesn’t mean we neglect foreign nations or do not extend love to them, but rather that we place the interests and worldview of our home above foreign ones. 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” Nationalism is about taking care of our neighbors, our families and fellow citizens, lest we deny the faith and be worse than an unbeliever. Torba and Isker insist they are not guilty of the charges that Perry and Whitehead make of CN. They disavow idolatry of the nation; they state that CN is not limited to any race, nation or culture; they do not believe America is chosen by God as a new Promised Land; and they say that CN is not a “marriage of the gospel with patriotism.”  Nor do they wish to overthrow the government. Rather, “after we have attained enough Christians in our nation, we are obliged to peacefully order our state governments in such a way as to help Christianity grow and flourish in our states without restrictions.”  They also understand the US to be a Union of states, and that the states are actually countries, many of which were founded with state religions. It is not their aim to recreate a 17th-century situation but rather to build a CN movement that is more ecumenical.  “No longer do Christian Nationalists in America seek to establish official state churches or religions, but rather we seek to reestablish states that recognize Jesus Christ as King, the general Christian faith as the foundation of state government, and state laws that reflect (in every way possible and reasonable) Christian morality and charity.” The rest of the book goes on to make their case. They insist that America is a Christian nation; they criticize the individualistic piety of low-Church evangelicalism which, they say, downplays the understanding of Christ’s Kingdom and political engagement; they heavily criticize dispensationalism and make the case for an alternative eschatology; they rage against critical race theory, cultural marxism, wokeness, luke-warm Christianity, and more. The book ends with a history of the founding of the American colonies in a defense of seeing the origin of the country as “Christian Nationalist.” Analysis: I suspect most readers of this paper will be put off by the tone of this book and some of its specific arguments. However, I also suspect that most evangelicals would agree with more of it than they might anticipate (even if reluctantly). Hence Peter Leithart’s assessment that the book is “flawed but generally sound.” My biggest point of disagreement is with the eschatological argument. Though they don’t name their views, their presentation is strongly of the postmillennial flavor (more on this below), and much of their thesis depends on this position. I am not a postmillennial, and so I do not share their conclusions. With Leithart, I also found their distinction between Christianity and Judaism to be too severe.  Given their frustration about how much CN has been mischaracterized in the press, I was disappointed at the lack of graciousness with opposing Christian views and the mischaracterization of some of them, especially in Chapter 6. Though unpersuaded to join their project, I don’t think Torba and Isker are proposing anything particularly controversial given their postmillennialism, and certainly not something that threatens democracy or the witness of the Church. Stephen Wolfe is the author of the incendiary The Case for Christian Nationalism. (Both his book and Torba/Isker’s came out in 2022.) One of the first to embrace the term, Wolfe offers a positive case for it from a far-right, Reformed perspective. He defines CN as, “A totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.” He sees CN as a sub-genus of nationalism and assumes that groups/nations should and will work together for their own common good. He also distinguishes his book as a work of political theory, not political theology. Thus, he assumes a Reformed theological tradition and spends little time in the biblical texts. Wolfe’s arguments are robust and are centered on the nature of man (he engages in theological anthropology and how that shapes social and political life), the nature of civil government (which he argues should enforce both Tables of the 10 Commandments ), and the nature of the magistrate (which he calls The Christian Prince). Furthermore, Wolfe makes a defense of cultural Christianity, he includes a chapter on revolution and one on liberty of conscience, and he offers his analysis of Protestant experience in early America. Many of Wolfe’s conclusions will likely be rejected outright by evangelical readers (e.g. the civil magistrate should have the authority to punish blasphemy and heresy), but it is worth pointing out that his views are rooted in a coherent, historical tradition. Analysis: Both Neil Shenvi and Kevin DeYoung have written substantial reviews of Wolfe’s book. Given the sophistication of Wolfe’s arguments, I feel somewhat unqualified to write my own and instead will draw on Shenvi and DeYoung’s insights. Both helpfully point out that Wolfe’s book has many strengths that its critics often overlook and, importantly, Wolfe’s presentation of CN is not of the popular variety described by Perry and Whitehead. (For example, of flags in the church building, Wolfe writes, “I’m ambivalent about national flags located inside or outside churches, but national flags should not be displayed in a sanctuary and especially not within sight during worship. The worshipper should see pulpit, table, and font.” ) However, Wolfe’s use of the concepts of “nation” and “ethnicity” are both confusing and problematic. For example, he argues that ethnicity is “your people” and that an ethnic group can be multi-racial. But he goes on to say, “People of different ethnic groups can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in inter-ethnic alliances for mutual good, and exercise common humanity (e.g., the good Samaritan), but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance”  [emphasis mine]. Wolfe’s project has been plagued with accusations of kinism, which he exacerbated with some foolish tweets on inter-racial marriage (which he later retracted). But even if we set the tweets aside, Shenvi persuasively shows that Wolfe’s formulation of nations and ethnicities seems to create division, not unity within the church. Indeed, Wolfe says we should become more like non-Westerners: “more exclusive and ethnic-focused.”  This seems to fly in the face of Ephesians 2 and a basic understanding of the gospel’s horizontal, reconciling effects. Furthermore, in the twitter-sphere, CN has been occasionally connected to ugly forms of physiognomy. In his epilogue, Wolfe contributes to this impression when he writes: “Christian nationalism should have a strong and austere aesthetic. I was dismayed when I saw the attendees of a recent PCA General Assembly—men in wrinkled, short-sleeve, golf shirts, sitting plump in their seats. We have to do better. Pursue your potential. Lift weights, eat right, and lose the dad bod. We don’t all have to become bodybuilders, but we ought to be men of power and endurance. We cannot achieve our goals with such a flabby aesthetic vision and under the control of modern nutrition. Sneering at this aesthetic vision, which I fully expect to happen, is pure cope. Grace does not destroy T-levels; grace does not perfect testosterone into estrogen. If our opponents want to be fat, have low testosterone, and chug vegetable oil, let them. It won’t be us.” DeYoung notes that the epilogue, different in tone than the rest of the book, reads like a rant. In paragraphs like the one mentioned above, the gloves seem to come off, and Wolfe’s proposal of CN feels less “magisterially Protestant” and more like an angry, personal vendetta. Much more can be said about Wolfe’s proposal, but ultimately, I join Shenvi and DeYoung in rejecting it. Synthesizing the Theories Though more could be said, this should suffice as a survey of some current CN theories. What should become clear is that, though there are definite sides to the debate, they are not exactly lined up directly across from one another. What Perry and Whitehead describe is not what either Torba/Isker or Wolfe embrace. We might label the former “pop-CN” and the latter “classical-CN.” Perhaps these terms are unhelpful—I wish only to distinguish them so that each may be properly evaluated on their own merits. It is my view that the former, where it legitimately exists, is unequivocally syncretistic and idolatrous and therefore should be condemned. (For a more balanced assessment of this kind of CN within the broader ideology of nationalism, and an explanation for why conservative Protestants are uniquely vulnerable to it, I recommend Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis, in particular Chapter 4, titled “Nationalism: The Jealous God of Nation.” )  Classical-CN, however, must be considered more carefully, for reasons that will be seen below. Before taking sides in these arguments, three issues must be untangled from the CN discourse to avoid superficial criticisms of CN and misguided uses of the terminology. They are undefined political theology, inconsistent political disengagement, and failures to recognize the theological issues at play, in particular eschatology and the Kingdom of God. Undefined Political Theology The first issue that must be separated from CN is the field of political theology. Many Christians are using CN terminology to attack political theologies they fail to understand and/or wrongly assume to be novel ideas rather than historic ones. Political theology can be understood as “efforts to probe the implications of the church’s beliefs, practices and Scriptures for political, social and/or economic realities.”  Scripture has much to say on how Christians should submit to their governments, but it has virtually nothing to say about how Christians should (or should not) wield power on behalf of the state in a constitutional republic—or a monarchy or any form of government, for that matter. Christian governance was simply not a reality of the NT age. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that Christians have found very different solutions to civic governance throughout the centuries. Since the days of Constantine, there have been nearly endless attempts to properly configure the “church” and the “state” in relationship with one another. Though space prohibits a thorough summary of these ideas, the Reformation yielded significant developments that still heavily influence political theologies today: ● Martin Luther was the father of the “two kingdoms” concept. He believed that God ordained two kingdoms, one sacred (the church) and one secular (the state), each with its own functions. However, only the state has been granted the right to wield the sword. ● John Calvin agreed with Luther that there were two, distinct realms, but believed they should work much closer together, as evidenced in his Protestant city of Geneva. In his three-fold use of the law, the second use is the restraint of society. Thus the state, though incapable of creating inner transformation in the life of the believer, is responsible for enforcing the laws of God. ● The Anabaptists believed that neither the church as an organization nor Christians as individuals should have anything to do with the state apparatus. In their view, military, political, and civic service are all off-limits for Christians. Since the Reformation, there have been many more proposals, often related to increasingly sophisticated questions about how the church is to relate to culture and society more broadly. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, though now quite dated, summarized approaches to Christian cultural engagement as follows: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. Though this grid has been re-assessed and critiqued many times over, it helpfully illustrates the plurality of ways Christians have understood the relationship between the church and the culture around us. Fundamentally, most Christians in US history have believed that politics and the mechanism of the state are appropriate means by which Christians may engage with culture and public life. This has been true of both the Christian Right and the Christian Left. Those who are against Christian political activity of any kind are in the definite minority, and this conviction is still largely connected to the Anabaptist movement and voices like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Unless one is prepared to take the Anabaptist position, the ethical questions related to cultural change, political engagement, and the public sphere are profoundly complicated. What should the relationship of the church and state be? Can Christians utilize the state’s power without being corrupted by it or perpetuating injustice? To what extent should Christians leverage their faith in the public sphere in a pluralistic society? As James Woods has asked, “Is there a Christian case for commitment to the nation?” And as Peter Leithart has asked, “What do we mean by nation?” What is the difference between nationalism and patriotism? And so on. As evangelicals, we have not all wrestled with these questions or attempted to place them in a coherent system. And as we have seen from Perry and Whitehead, the expectation is increasingly that we keep our faith private. (And as Shenvi and DeYoung acknowledge, Wolfe’s proposal, for all its weaknesses, is one of the few that is tied to a historical tradition.) The point is this: any attempt to provide answers to the above questions (which I think we should attempt), or to actually do political theology, is likely to receive the charge of Christian Nationalism from someone. In Part 5 of Center Church, Tim Keller maps his four, broad models of cultural transformation (Two Kingdoms, Relevance, Counterculturalist and Transformationist) onto a helpful diagram which I have pasted below.  In Chapter 18, titled “Cultural Engagement Through Blended Insights,” Keller dismisses the idea that a “perfect union” of all models is possible; at the end of the day, we need to pin our colors to a mast. But he gives very helpful guidance on how to synthesize convictions, seasons, giftings, and calling as we each develop our own views of how Christ relates to culture, which will then inform how we approach governance and politics. Finally, the argument I am making here is not for one particular type of political theology. Rather, I am recommending that pastors attempt to formulate their own convictions in this regard. As it stands, “Christian Nationalism” has become an easy pejorative with which to accuse anyone to one’s political right. By developing coherent cultural and political theologies, we can be more judicious in our use of this term and our analysis of those who arrive at different conclusions. The Rise of Political Disengagement The rise of political disengagement, or political passivity, has been another key influence on the trajectory of CN conversations. Several likely causes are at play. Perhaps in response to a perceived union of theological and political conservatism, many evangelicals are increasingly suspicious of political and cultural power. Michael Horton’s 2008 Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church was a classic expression of this unease. His book opens with a reference to a sermon from Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse, in which he imagined Satan taking control of cities: “All of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.” What is being described here is “cultural Christianity,” a concept that evangelicals often use negatively in reference to the hypocritical expression of faith.  In some cases, evangelicals have been so concerned with this hypocrisy, that they have even celebrated the end of Christian influence. For example, in 2015 Russell Moore wrote that the days of Bible-belt Christianity were essentially coming to an end, adding, “good riddance to them.” In his view, even things like “traditional family values” become suspect when practiced at large but without a primary motivation of obedience to Christ. This apprehension about cultural Christianity has surely contributed to the evangelical retreat from the public square. A second cause of evangelical disengagement has been the out-sized influence of James Hunter Davison’s 2010 book To Change the World. Hunter identifies three “paradigms of cultural engagement” that are specific to contemporary, North American Christianity: ‘Defensive Against’ (typical of the fundamentalist conservatism of the Religious Right), ‘Relevance To’ (typical of the liberal mainline Religious Left, progressive evangelicals, the “seeker-sensitive” movement, and the “emerging church” movement), and ‘Purity From’ (typical of neo-Anabaptists, some evangelical conservatives, most Pentecostals and the “new monasticism”).  Following this analysis, Hunter provides his own proposal called ‘Faithful Presence.’ He sees the future of Christian power as “postpolitical” and writes: “It may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.”  Although Hunter’s ‘Faithful Presence’ has been criticized as “too passive and concessionary,”  his analysis of the other three paradigms has been highly acclaimed, and his work was a major influence on Tim Keller. Through Keller’s ministry, Hunter’s “postpolitical approach” has shaped large swaths of evangelicalism. And despite his claims in the book that ‘Faithful Presence’ does not mean civic privatism, it’s hard to see how it would lead to anything else. In the wake of these developments and the decline of Christian influence in the West, a question has crystallized: Should Christians use the civic sphere to actively promote a Christian lifestyle amongst people who are not all genuinely Christian? More and more, it seems that pastors and Christian leaders are answering that question in the negative, even when speaking of majority-Christian contexts.  Such an instinct, however, reflects a kind of neo-Anabaptism that is being selectively and inconsistently applied. For example, I think nearly all Christians would say that the abolitionist movement was an unqualified good—regardless of whether slavery was abolished in obedience to Christ or not. Similarly, we recognize that pornography is destructive to communities and we believe that people will flourish more without it—regardless of whether the refusal of porn is made in God’s honor. And of course, we want both Christians and non-Christians to stop getting abortions, regardless of motive. Yet all of these are rooted in Christian beliefs and are therefore part of what might be called a Christian lifestyle. Without a coherent framework that accounts for how we want laws, culture, and society to be formed, convictions such as these can begin to feel arbitrary. Some political/societal action is celebrated, but other political/societal action is decried as Christian Nationalism. It’s all very ad hoc. In a recent TGC video on Christian Nationalism (on the whole, an illuminating discussion), one of the exchanges well illustrates the problem I am describing. Bob Thune asks his fellow panelists about how our convictions on God, Christ, and the scriptures should inform our public policy. Andy Davis replies by contrasting how Christ’s Kingdom advances by martyrdom, whereas the kingdoms of the world advance with the sword. Here’s how the dialogue plays out: Andy: “We seek to persuade. We seek to exemplify godliness. We seek to pray for people and be willing to lay down our lives. The government uses the sword, it’s what it’s designed to do. I’m uncomfortable with the marrying of those two.” Bob: “But that doesn’t help me much if I’m a Christian who’s running for office or who’s on the school board or who’s on the city council. That’s where the question gets interesting to me: there’s a lot of people in our churches who can keep those two worlds separate, but there’s many who can’t . . . Taking that a step further, Andy, what would you say to someone who does have a responsibility to instantiate public policy in some way?” Andy: [After a brief anecdote]... “That’s the challenge.” Unfortunately, Andy is either unwilling or unable to elaborate. And yet, later in the video, he goes on to argue that competence in governance is vital. This dialogue highlights the problem facing evangelical leaders. Our initial responses to the complexities of the public sphere are often avoidant, pietistic, and quasi-Anabaptistic. And yet, contra Anabaptism, we do want at least some Christians to become competent public servants. Our selectively applied political disengagement is sending a confusing set of mixed messages and has created an ethical vacuum that the ambiguous term “Christian Nationalism” is now filling. Theological Issues The third area of interest that bears on the CN conversation is explicitly theological: eschatology and the Kingdom of God. We will consider them in turn. Eschatology In Reformed Theology, Michael Allen writes: The real issue involved in the relationship of Christianity and culture, therefore, is the way in which eschatology and salvation relate. How does the redemption brought by Christ play itself out over the course of the plan of God? In what time and at what pace will these things happen? What Christians believe about the end, and in particular the millennium, will strongly influence what they believe about Christians’ responsibility to change (or not change) culture in the present. In fact, it may be the most important theological belief that shapes one’s positions on political theology and CN. Postmillennialism, in particular, teaches that Christians are to work for the transformation of society prior to Christ’s return and is generally connected to the Christian theonomy movement. Of the different views of the millennium, it is the most optimistic about cultural engagement, and therefore the most likely to align with proposals like Torba/Isker’s and Stephen Wolfe’s. (Anecdotally, most of the CN advocates I follow on Twitter are postmillennial.) In contrast, premillennialism, and in some cases amillennialism, tend to be more pessimistic about the present age and therefore less optimistic about the change that is possible. In the debates over CN, both pre-mill and post-mill adherents have pointed to these eschatological differences, though they present the issues differently. Whereas postmillennialism may find a kindred spirit in Stephen Wolfe’s proposal, pop-dispensationalism is often connected to “pop-CN.” Daniel Hummell, author of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, observes that “under-theologized, pop-dispensationalism” has spread while “scholarly dispensationalism” has been in rapid decline. Under the influence of figures like John Hagee and Paula White, Christian political activism in the US has been “Pentecostalized.” However, that new activism is not classically dispensational, but heavily modified. It still maintains strong support for Israel, but does so without explicitly theological or properly eschatological underpinnings. It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore the evolution of dispensationalism in the US. The point I wish to make here is that the Wolfe/Torba flavor of CN is far more connected to the eschatology of Reformed postmillennialism than dispensationalism, despite appearances to the contrary, while “pop-CN” is loosely connected to a kind of pop-dispensationalism widely prevalent in the US. The Kingdom of God Tim Keller observes: “It is evident that one of the main reasons for many of the divergent approaches to cultural engagement—among many aspects of ministry today—is differing views of the nature of the kingdom.”  These differing views are partially a result of exegetical disagreement: what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the Kingdom of God? RT France believes that the Greek word basileia should be translated as “reign,” “rule,” or “sovereignty” because the modern meaning of “kingdom” unhelpfully suggests a specific place or people group under the control of a king, such as The United Kingdom. It is worth quoting him here at length: “The kingdom of God” is not making a statement about a “thing” called “the kingdom,” but about God, that he is king. Thus, “the kingdom of God has come near” means “God is taking over as king,” and to “enter the kingdom of God” is to come under his rule, to accept him as king . . . The classical debate among modern theologians as to whether the kingdom of God should be understood as already “realized” in Jesus’ ministry (Dodd) or still wholly future (Schweitzer) can thus be seen as a false trail. It is based on the wrong assumption that “the kingdom of God” denoted a particular time or state of affairs within history. Instead, the term is a dynamic expression for any and every situation in which God is king, his authority exercised, and his will done . . . As long as God continues to allow his world to resist his rule, so long will there be tension and paradox built into the language of the “kingdom of God.” Based on these insights, a natural question arises: what, then, is the difference between the kingdom and the church? This is perhaps the most difficult of the many challenging questions related to the Kingdom of God. I will present two views. Geerhardus Vos, in his book, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, writes of the invisible church: From what has been said it appears that every view which would keep the kingdom and the church separate as two entirely distinct spheres is not in harmony with the trend of our Lord’s teaching. The church is a form which the kingdom assumes in result of the new stage upon which the Messiahship of Jesus enters with his death and resurrection. So far as extent of membership is concerned, Jesus plainly leads us to identify the invisible church and the kingdom. It is impossible to be in the one without being in the other. This is not to say no distinctions can be made between the invisible church and the kingdom (indeed, several can ), but Vos insists that the line that marks the boundary of both is regeneration, which corresponds to France’s understanding of the kingdom God. Of the visible church, we can affirm that it is an expression or manifestation of the invisible kingdom, but it does not constitute the entire thing.  Vos says that whenever any sphere of life (art, science, etc) “comes under the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory, and this outwardly reveals itself, there we can truly say that the kingdom of God has become manifest.”  This means that both the institutional (visible) church and the individual Christian contribute to expressions of the Kingdom. However, he asserts that Christ never intended that all spheres of life should be subject to the visible church: the church should not control the state. But what if those who control the state are regenerate? Vos continues: “While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church.” George Ladd presents an alternative view. In A Theology of the New Testament, he writes: “The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and, derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of women and men.” He goes on to argue that not only is the church not the Kingdom, the Kingdom creates the church, the church witnesses to the Kingdom, the church is the instrument of the Kingdom, and that the church is the custodian of the Kingdom. Taking a comprehensive view of the Kingdom, it would seem that it should include more than regenerated souls, unless we are to believe that the non-human part of creation is excluded. If only for this reason, I tend to side with Ladd. But both theologians make important contributions here. We can agree with Ladd that the church and kingdom are not the same. Confusing them increases the probability that expressions of the kingdom (like Christians in positions of governance) automatically fall within the domain of the church. This is a slippery slope to a conflation of the church and state. But as Ladd acknowledges, neither the Kingdom nor the church can exist without the other.  Since the church is the instrument and custodian of the kingdom, the church and the church alone manifests the Kingdom. Thus, Vos’s point is still critical, that both the institutional church and the individual Christian participate in bringing the Kingdom to bear on the world. Keller makes this observation of Vos’s perspective: “There is a tendency to see the kingdom as either strictly spiritual and operating within the church or mainly social and operating in the liberation movements out in the world. Vos’s biblical balance will enable us to avoid imbalances in the cultural engagement and missional church debates in particular.” How we understand the Kingdom will surely influence how we seek to advance it in the public square. In theory, a country led entirely by Christians in accordance with Christian principles would be, in some sense, an expression of the Kingdom. (Thus, the question of whether a nation can be “Christian” is, ultimately, semantic.) I suspect this is something all Christians desire. What it should be called and how it should be pursued are the questions with which we’re grappling. A final thought on eschatology and the Kingdom of God: as we have already said, “classical CN” is primarily linked to postmillennialism. However, that belief is inextricably linked to a very specific understanding of the Kingdom: “In postmillennial thought, the kingdom of God is viewed as a present reality, here and now, rather than a future, heavenly realm . . . Its growth will be extensive (it will spread throughout the entire world) and intensive (it will become dominant.)”  Much of what Torba and Isker, in particular, argue is based on a theological conviction that the gospel will triumph in this age because the Kingdom is slowly and steadily advancing. Though their views are couched in the language of “Christian Nationalism,” they are mainly advancing the logical conclusions of their theological beliefs. Conclusion: Toward a More Robust Assessment of Political and Civic Engagement As I said above, the Christian Nationalism that Perry and Whitehead defined (what I have called “pop-CN”) is deeply problematic. Idolatry is perhaps the gravest sin of the Bible, the “fundamental crime against Yahweh.”  Should God and/or the gospel become means to ends other than God’s own glory, then we know that idolatry of some kind is afoot. We are right to call such things demonic and judge them accordingly. But I am also suspicious that everywhere the term CN is used, such syncretism has actually occurred. (We may reject the arguments for what I have called “classical CN”—but that does make it synonymous with the popular variant.) I am also nervous that evangelicals are being bullied out of the public square with injudicious accusations of Christian Nationalism. And I am concerned with our inability to articulate coherent strategies of cultural and political engagement. My recommendation is that evangelical pastors and leaders, especially in the US, should develop their own views on political theology at a principled and foundational level rather than starting with the downstream issues. The rise of the conservative far-right (e.g., Stephen Wolfe) has been possible largely because of the evangelical retreat in these matters. As a starting point, Brad East has provided a framework that is perhaps more helpful than either Niebuhr’s or Hunter’s for cultural engagement. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, East suggests four ways to interact with culture and points out that they are not mutually exclusive—sometimes we may need to use more than one at the same time. He identifies them as Resistance, Repentance, Reception, and Reform; for fuller descriptions of what he means by these terms, his essay is worth reading in its entirety. However, even the application of these concepts must be founded in some kind of political theology—and indeed it will be, whether that political theology be thoughtfully crafted or ignorantly assumed piecemeal. It is likely that, within our movement, there is a wide spectrum of ideas and convictions about how Christians should participate in the public sphere and in culture change. Let’s work to determine our own views on these matters and give one another the best possible hearing. Let’s remember that some of our questions are ancient (e.g. the nature of the millennium) while some are quite recent in world history (e.g. how Christians should participate in democratic and constitutional republics).  And let’s also be cautious that we don’t use the term Christian Nationalism as a cheap insult for political views with which we disagree, or perhaps simply don’t understand. On this subject, in particular, we could use less heat and more light.  

  • Nihilism Without Nihilists
    by Andrew Wilson on 22nd May 2024

    "The first thing one must know about nihilism as a philosophical and cultural reality," says James Davison Hunter in Democracy and Solidarity, "is that it is not one thing. Rather, it is a cluster of themes that follow from the 'death of God' - or, more accurately, the death of all 'god-terms' - that for most of human history established within the cosmology and culture of societies certain ultimate, transcendent, and universal conceptions of truth, value and purpose." He lists them as follows:1) Epistemological failure: the recognition that there are now no objective, knowable truths; that all claims to authoritative knowledge are without foundation; that ‘reason’ as an autonomous capacity independent of presuppositions or free from any vested interests is a fiction. 2) Ethical incoherence: the recognition that we are at ‘the end of the moral interpretation of the world’; that there are no absolute moral or ethical values, but rather that right and wrong, good and evil are, in the end, nothing more than vague constructs tied to social circumstances and emotional states. 3) Existential despair, which denies any intrinsic meaning or ultimate value or purpose to individual or social life. 4) Political annihilation, which manifests itself in a will to obliterate all that obstructs the will to power, a will to bring enemies to nothing, to destroy completely. Put like this, Hunter adds, there are very few genuine nihilists. So why is nihilism so pervasive in Western culture, and specifically in American political culture? The answer will be familiar to readers of Hunter’s To Change the World: “culture has a life of its own more or less independent of people’s intentions or will, and it is most powerful when the meanings or rules by which people live are taken for granted ... For my purposes, passive nihilism is the net effect of large, institutional dynamics intrinsic to the modern world - its technology, its bureaucracy, its markets, its pluralism, its entertainment - unfolding in the public sphere.” What Hunter calls “nihilism without nihilists” is exacerbated by the conditions of late modernity: “the profound confusion that derives from the sense of multiple realities and multiple ways of knowing, the relativization of value through pluralism and choice, the absence of authority and with it the sense of meaninglessness in life and history, the diminution of the moral worth of all human beings (though some more than others) through their instrumentalization, and the absence of clear, coherent and common purposes to which individual and collective life might be directed.”

  • Why Identity Politics Flourishes in Late Modern Society
    by Andrew Wilson on 20th May 2024

    "Identity groups are, in effect, compensatory," explains James Davison Hunter in his fascinating (if somewhat depressing) book Democracy and Solidarity. In the context of the late modern society that Hunter is describing, such groups represent- “a means to power and influence in a world that has rendered average citizens powerless of the conditions of their existence, - an assertion of distinctiveness in a world that tends to flatten or level all meaningful differences, - the possibility for meaningful belief and purpose in a world that denies ultimate meaning and renders most beliefs a matter of mere taste, - an anchor of certainty in a world of contingency, - a way of belonging in a world that atomizes our existence even as it weakens the ties of local and organic community, - a heartfelt plea for recognition and the dignity it confers in a world that cares very little for the individual personally and cares for you publicly only insofar as you perform the role that you play, and - the hope of living a meaningful and significant life, a life that matters, in a world that makes most of us feel our lives are insignificant and inconsequential. In sum, identity groups are compensatory networks that emerge in response to the dehumanisation endemic to the modern and late modern world.”

  • Pursuing the Presence of God
    by Matthew Hosier on 17th May 2024

    Last week I was in Houston for the Advance global conference. A highlight of the teaching was this session by Tope Koleoso on pursuing the presence of God. It is really wonderful. All the other sessions are available here.

  • Where Is the Greatness of God?
    by Andrew Bunt on 13th May 2024

    What has been the most spiritually nourishing thing you’ve done in recent years?  For me, it would be reading and thinking more deeply about the doctrine of God. I’ve been really struck by how delving deeper into the doctrine of God has deepened my relationship with him in ways I didn’t expect.A big theme I’ve been thinking about has been the greatness and otherness of God. It’s so easy for us to slip into thinking that God is basically just a better version of us. We forget that he is a fundamentally different kind of being; he’s not just a better version of us, but the most perfect version there could be of anything. He’s the creator of all and all else is the created. He’s the infinite, limitless one; we the finite, limited ones. You might think that focusing on God’s greatness, his otherness and how different he is from us would make him seem more distant and inaccessible. And yet that hasn’t been my experience. It has been recognising and acknowledging God’s greatness and difference that has drawn me closer to him in recent months. Focussing afresh on who God is, has reminded me of the depths of the wonder of the gospel. The fact it is the limitless creator who has reconciled us to himself through the sending of his Son and his Spirit makes the gospel even more incredible. Far from making God seem distant and inaccessible, recognising God’s greatness emphasises the wonder of the relationship we can now enjoy with him. The greatness of God doesn’t undermine the gospel, it underlines the gospel. The greatness of God is also an encouragement and comfort. As we face challenges in life, knowing that the God who loves us and has adopted us as his own is a God who is without limits makes a huge difference. Nothing it outside of his control, nothing is too difficult for him, nothing is going to distract him or incapacitate him. He is the God who is in control of all things and yet is controlled by nothing. There is great comfort in recognising the greatness of God. But my renewed appreciation of who God really is has also made me realise how often the greatness of God is missing. The focus of so many contemporary worship songs is on the impact of the gospel on us – that we are forgiven, free and loved. The same is probably true of much of our teaching. These are wonderful truths and things that we should celebrate and allow to fuel our heartfelt worship, thanksgiving and obedience. But they can also encourage us to look at ourselves. They draw our focus inward rather than upward, to ourselves rather than to God. On the flip side, how often do we sing of who God is, of his otherness, and of how the gospel not only brings us many blessings but reveals to us the greatness of God? How often is the greatness of God, his total perfection and otherness the focus of our teaching? I suspect many of us who consider these questions will find there’s often an imbalance when we gather as God’s people. Looking back now, I feel like I’ve been suffering from spiritual anaemia without even realising it. Sometimes it’s only when things begin to become more balanced that we realise how unbalanced they’ve been up until then. Could such spiritual anaemia be a broader problem? Maybe. We may have lost the greatness of God. But the good news is that the God who is without limit does not change. His greatness hasn’t diminished even if we have failed to behold it. He there’s, the infinite, unchanging, uncreated creator. He’s waiting for us to rediscover who he really is, and as we do, we might just find that as our perception of God gets bigger, our relationship with him gets deeper.

  • Joshua, Judgment, Genocide and Justice
    by Andrew Wilson on 10th May 2024

    Gavin Ortlund has a superb YouTube video here on the conquest of Canaan. One of our strongest moral intuitions, he begins, is that killing innocent children is always morally wrong. So how can we accept the goodness of a God who commands Israel to kill (among others) innocent children? His answer is in two main sections, and is a wonderful example of how to approach questions like this carefully and thoughtfully: