Unless we begin our understanding of cultural history with certain key biblical doctrines well in hand, we are going to get hopelessly gummed up. One of the stickiest ways to get gummed up is in the matter of glibly assigning responsibility for the causes of this or that.
But before turning to that, let me at least briefly mention two doctrines that are extremely relevant to this discussion, which are the doctrines of divine revelation and the revealed doctrine of the antithesis. As the history of modern philosophy has demonstrated, without God’s gift of light we are all of us in the dark. Without some light from God, we cannot even know we are in the dark, although lots of our modern johnnies pretend to know that, so that they may begin work on their bulging forehead workarounds. But if Kant can’t know anything “in itself, as it is,” then one wonders how he figured out the limitations of epistemology as they are. If we cannot know a thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), then it might as well be a transcendental absurdity (Ding an dong).
And once we have settled into the realization that we can know nothing of our situation unless God tells us, we must be further humbled by the realization that His Word is absolutely perfect, and that the only imperfections anywhere near that revelations are the imperfections imported by our dishonest hermeneutics, along with insolent philosophical attempts to evade the necessity of a God-given and therefore infallible and inerrant Word.
All this this is prolegomena to my attempt to slay the jabberwock. One of the very first things that was revealed to us after the crash of our first parents is the doctrine of the antithesis. This is the doctrine that throughout human history, there will be constant, total war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. War is declared in the third chapter of the Bible, the central victory is accomplished when the Lord Jesus crushed the head of the serpent at the cross, and the rest of history consists of believers in Jesus being sent out into the world in order to manhandle all the snakes they can find.
This is a central narrative thread in all human history, and failure to grasp this is prelude to being deceived and undone, as our mother Eve was.
Now what does this have to do with the question of cultural causation? It is commonplace for partisans of various stripes to blame bad things on their adversaries in a most simplistic way. For example, someone might want to blame the Protestant Reformation for our modern social balkanizations, but this is way too convenient, and besides, why don’t these same people thank the Protestant Reformers for indoor plumbing?
Now I do believe that history can be “read,” and further, I believe that it must be read if we are to be faithful in our generation. And I believe that some events can be assigned as the straight line cause of other things. For example, the invention of the printing press did lead to a widespread distribution of books. The invention of the Internet has likewise led to a widespread dissemination of cat videos. But if we go out much further, things get rapidly more complicated, and this is where the antithesis comes in.
In a sword fight, we are not surprised by thrust, parry, counter thrust. In a massive, spiritual war, why would it be any different? Something happens, something is invented, a truth is realized, one side picks it up, and the other side tries to deflect it, or co-opt it, or shut it down. For every measure, there is a counter measure. Parry, thrust.
Let me give an example of something current that illustrates this nicely. I am fond of saying in sermons that we have to “read our stories.” As Nate argued in his Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, we are all of us God’s spoken word, and our responsibility is to grasp the fact of this, and read our lines as though God were the director — because He is. This, in reaction to a dusty kind of orthodoxy that has reduced certain propositions to dead maxims, as dry and crispy as beetles pinned to a museum display board one hundred years ago.
But, at the very same time, postmodernists are emphasizing story and narrative too, bless their hearts, and they are doing it over against the flaming sword of orthodox propositions. These propositions, such as “Jesus rose from the grave,” are wild and free like a lion that has never even seen a man, and these new narrativalists are trying to turn it into a domesticated tabby cat to keep the mice population down in their faith community community hall. But of course, this turns every “faith community” into a cargo cult, and who is more lost than we are? And why? Because we don’t want God to speak the authoritative Word over all that is.
Narrative theology is important — crucial in fact. But when it becomes apparent that it is important in this world of war, both sides will attempt to seize it, and will use it to their own ends. This is why it is as silly to assume that someone is a postmodernist because he emphasizes story as it would be to assume that someone was a Union soldier because was on the field at Gettysburg, and had a gun. Right, he did, but which way is it pointed?
With regard to this issue, one side will say that we have a responsibility to read our own story accurately, and fit it into God’s metanarrative, the absolute story, the ultimate story. The theme of this world’s history is “kill the dragon, get the girl.” But God is the only one to define what the dragon is, and who the girl is. The other detaches story from God’s revelation of Himself, and goes off to find a corner somewhere with their security blanket and narratival binky. In that isolated corner, it does not matter if dragons and girls come into the story. They probably will, given the deep structure of the world, but they will also be faithless incorporations, given the deep structure of our rebellion.
You can’t have a fight with a midnight intruder in your home without breaking some of the furniture. But the cause of this was the intruder’s intrusion — the cause was not confronting him. The fight caused the damage, but the fight was good (from one side), and the damage a sadness.
A simplistic approach gives way, almost immediately, to a post hoc analysis, and does so on the basis of blinkered partisan loyalties. This is why people like to say that the Reformation caused the rise of our fragmented epistemologies. As well say that the Advent of Christ caused the rise of Islam — which it did, but only in the sense that the arrival of Wellington caused Napoleon to show up. As well say that the Incarnation caused some Christians to pray to pictures.
Truth does what it does, and true hearts respond to it one way, and false hearts respond to it in another. It is not possible, in a fallen world, to have truth enter history and pass through it untouched, like Jesus did once with the mob at Nazareth (Luke 4:29-30). And while truth has come thus far on this battlefield, we should not say that truth caused all the dents in its own armor. Those came from elsewhere, although it must be said that was not unexpected.
Truth is resisted, obstructed, lied about, persecuted, and then when all that damage is done, the opponents of the truth glibly declare that the truth must not be all that true — look at all the damage! Father and son are set against one another (Luke 12:53), and so this cannot be from God. Christianity is the proximate cause of all these heresies — should this not make us think? Well, yes it should, but it should make us think in a straight line.
Genuine currency does not “cause” counterfeits, even though in one sense it does. The issue is the truth, and not whatever false things have been done to or with the truth.
So then, what is the rule for those who would be reformers? The rule is never to apologize for the truth. Never. When Scripture requires us to seek forgiveness or put something right, what we are putting right is our complicity in some lie or other. Lies must always be repudiated, and while it is certainly humbling, it is never strategically stupid. We are servants of the truth — how can it hurt us to get rid of another lie? Armies are not weakened by finding and hanging another spy in their ranks.
What is strategically stupid is to allow the lie to discredit the truth. What would be stupid would be to hang the spy and accuse the army.
What is strategically stupid is to apologize for being evangelical. What is strategically stupid is to confound some of the foibles of those who hold to the truth with the truth itself.
So then, the only troubles the truth has directly caused are those troubles which the world had coming to it. Everything else was from the evil one.