by Darrow Miller
This article is a response to the article “Biblical Holism and Secular Thought in Christian Development,” by Joel Matthews (July, 1999)
This article is a response to the article "Biblical Holism and Secular Thought in Christian Development," by Joel Matthews (July, 1999).
The genocide in Rwanda illustrates not only what the Reformers called the total depravity of man, but also much of the belief and practice of the 20th century evangelical missions thrust.
Rwanda reminds us that it is possible to evangelize and “convert” a nation while failing to disciple it at the level of culture. With every redemption of the heart should come a redemption of the mind.
There is much to appreciate in Joel Matthews’s paper. First, he clearly articulates the desire to see the church ministering wholistically. Indeed, Christ has come to redeem all of man and all of creation (Col. 1:19, 20).
Joel also points out the strong dualism, or what I call evangelical gnosticism, prevalent in evangelical and charismatic circles today. This dualism defines how we see salvation, how we see the church, and how we see the church in the world. We are called to take our responsibilities seriously, not only as individuals, but as members of the larger community. Joel rightly describes how the rabid individualism of modern Western society has influenced the church and her vision.
The language of transformation, of both individual and society, is eminently biblical, as is Joel’s reminder that the local church is the focal point for bringing transformation to individuals and societies. Neglect of this last point is something that Food for the Hungry International has consciously repented of in recent years. Like many evangelical relief and development organizations, we had abandoned the local church. Our repentance has caused us to focus anew on strengthening the local church, encouraging her to minister wholistically in her community. We are stewards and caretakers of the Master’s “royal garden.”
However, I found Joel’s article to be a little muddled. I wasn’t always sure which platform he was standing on. At times I sensed that he was critiquing from a modern, socialist perspective. At times he seemed to be critiquing from within the dualistic or evangelical gnostic perspective. From my point of view, there would have been more clarity if he had consciously analyzed the platform from which he was critiquing and had embraced a solid and uncompromising biblical worldview.
In the section on biblical holism, Joel recognizes the need to function from a biblical worldview, one that is “wholistic”—recognizing that God is the Lord of all of life, not just the “spiritual” aspects, and that all people are to live coram Deo—before the face of God. I would like to examine several themes in the article: first, the nature of man; second, the nature of creation; and, third, the nature of history.
While Joel seems to criticize the naturalist’s understanding of the “limitless perfectibility of the human species,” he seems to forget his criticism when he asks, “Why has the church not been at the forefront of creating ideal societies on earth?”
He writes likewise in speaking of transformed communities: “Life purpose has been transformed, people no longer pursue selfish goals.” Statements like these reflect the very belief in perfectibility that we must condemn in liberal thinking. We live in a fallen world. Even though saved by grace, man is still a sinner at the core of his being. While we are to strive toward God’s biblical ideals for people and nations, we must also realize that the world, the flesh, and the devil confront us daily. We may achieve, to use Francis Schaeffer’s words, “substantial healing” in the midst of this broken world, but we should not expect people to selflessly create “ideal societies on earth.”
Matthews also writes, “Rather than divide the world into the seen and unseen or physical and spiritual realms, we should understand reality as divided between the Creator and the creation. God is alone in his category. Everything else is in the created order—angels, humans, plants, rocks, etc.” I disagree. There is a seen and an unseen world, a physical and a spiritual world. The postmodern age seeks to fuse these into “one reality” in which ultimately the physical and theparticular disappear. The Bible acknowledges the seen and the unseen world, but describes them as integrated, as interacting, not as fused into “one reality.”
There is, as Joel points out, a divide between the Creator and the creation, but he places man simply as part of creation and separated from the Creator. As Francis Schaeffer has pointed out, we must say two things about man. First, he is a creature and part of creation and thus separated from God, and, second, he bears the image of God; his unity is toward God, not creation, because he bears the image of the living God (Gen. 1:26, 27). To put man only in the category of the created will lead to either a naturalistic explanation of man or to a postmodern notion of man being part of the “oneness of all things.”
The biblical worldview clearly states that God has made a universe in which laws and order reign not only in the moral and social spheres, but also in the physical sphere. Joel tends to downplay this when he looks at the naturalistic worldview, “where all reality is material and thus is governed by predictable laws.” While these are the basic assumptions of a naturalistic or secular worldview, the second assumption of being governed by predictable laws has been borrowed from the biblical worldview in which there is a Creator who rules the universe through laws and ordinances. There is no place in materialism for this assumption. Further, the Bible clearly states that the universe is an open system. It is open to God, it is open to man, and it is open to the angels. Matthews seems to hold to the secular assumption that there are “limited resources.” This concept is derived from a materialistic paradigm in which resources are by definition physical and, thus, limited. The Bible speaks differently, however. God created through his word (Gen. 1 and Psa. 33:9), and the invisible is the source of the visible (Heb. 11:3). The system is not closed; it is open. Resources are not merely what is found in the ground, but also what is in the mind—in the mind of the primary Creator, who intervenes in his creation, as well as the innovation and creativity expressed by the subcreators—image bearers of God. Resources are only limited when there is a lack of moral stewardship, when what we have is wasted, and when there is a lack of biblical vision concerning the nature of creation and the nature of man.
While I agree that modern secularism’s optimistic view of history has been challenged by the wars and the depravity of man seen in this century, we must not throw out a hopeful view of the future.
As Christians we must live between two tensions—the sinfulness of man and the fallenness of the world on the one hand, and Christ’s teachings about the coming of the kingdom, on the other. The Bible is both pessimistic, in that it recognizes the fallenness of the world, and optimistic, in that it recognizes that Jesus conquered death.
Yet we Christians recognize the presence of natural evil in the world. The church must stand against this. While science and technology indeed cannot improve man’s soul, they provide the tools to bring progress in the material world. Christian development organizations can introduce technologies that provide cleaner water, help people grow more food, offer education that enables them to stay healthier, and give medicine that can cure diseases we have never in the past thought of curing.
We must be realistic optimists as we look at the future. We must reject on the one hand the romantic optimism of the secularist, and we must reject on the other the pessimism often found within the church that the world is getting worse and worse and our only task is to save souls before the ship sinks.
On economics, Matthews tends to be sympathetic to the socialist’s view and critical of the capitalist’s. Let’s set aside the labels, however, and look at biblical principles that relate to economic activity. We agree that the Bible speaks about economic principles. In fact, the English word economics isderived from the Greek word oikonomia, referring to the “stewarding (through laws) of the house.” Oikonomia literally refers to the stewardship or the administration of God’s house, and economics is, above all, a moral philosophy. Looking at economics today through the lens of a secular and materialistic society—Marxism, socialism, and Western consumerism—we see that it is founded on a materialistic set of assumptions. We need to define our economic system from a distinctly biblical set of assumptions and principles.
John Wesley’s preaching of Christ crucified for salvation and his call to apply biblical political and economic principles to the civil society transformed England in one generation. Wesley articulated an economic philosophy reflecting biblical principles: Work as hard as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can. The Bible also articulates the concept of private property (“Thou shalt not steal.”) It speaks of the reality of the sinfulness of man, manifest in corruption and greed. It speaks of personal responsibility, family responsibility, and our responsibilities to the church, the larger community, and indeed, the world. Any economic system, no matter what you call it, must take into account these principles. No economic system has ever done it perfectly. The question is, “Which economic system is the closest to recognizing and fulfilling these principles?”
Thanks to Evangelical Missions Quarterly and Joel Matthews for encouraging this kind of discussion. We in the evangelical community, whether missionaries or relief and development workers, need to pursue a ministry that touches the whole of man and all of his relationships.
Darrow Miller is vice president of staff development, Food for the Hungry International (Scottsdale, Arizona). He co-authored the book Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures (YWAM, 1998).
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 299-302. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.