Can Your Civilization Do This?

Can Your Civilization Do This? March 19, 2019

Do not get me wrong. The West, for all of its faults, is sometimes glorious display of human achievements. Sometimes Western Civilization is hard to define, but it has had many defenders. One was the political scientist, Samuel Huntington:

the Western heritage is rooted in “Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman law, Latin and Christianity,” a common culture with penchants for the separation of “spiritual and temporal authority,” the rule of law, representative governments, and civil liberties. In the post-Cold War world, Huntington advised that the West reanimate its principles and avoid meddling in the affairs of other civilizations that were rediscovering, and taking pride in, their own traditions.

But you did not need to teach at Harvard to recognize the West’s accomplishments. According to the founding president of Fuller Seminary, Harold John Ockenga:

You might ask the question, “Well what do you mean when you speak of Western civilization?” Well, I mean those great Christian principles which have been infused into society over centuries, and which now are bearing their fruit. You all are aware of the concept of the infinite value of individual man, which concept is being battered about in these days by men who do not believe in its source nor believe in the principles which underlie it but will talk about the infinite dignity of the individual; that concept, I say, is born out of the Hebrew-Christian tradition. Then, beyond that, comes the concept also of responsibility to God which has resulted in the moral fiber of our Christian thinking, the moral fiber of the masses of the people in which they have been responsible unto God and divine law for the incorporation of the ideas and responsibilities thereof, and then the expression of those principles, ideals, and practices in a community life. Now we have seen in the centuries that are past a gradual growth of this culture. We have seen the seed of this civilization come from a little seemingly insignificant thing until it spread abroad throughout Europe, bore its fruit, came to its great harvest time, until in our day we have the heritage of the centuries of Christian teaching.

Now compare those human goods to the work of redemption that Paul described (and praised) in the first chapter of Ephesians:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

I don’t want to sound like the church lady or Bible-thumper man, but if you do not see that the salvation Christians have through Christ is so much more glorious than any civilization or culture, from ancient China to twenty-first-century Manhattan, then you may think that social justice or cultural engagement are as important as word and sacrament. You would not be alone. But you may be guilty of the same category mistake that led defenders of the West to identify Western Civilization with Christianity. Since Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, identifying his ministry with any civilization — woke or traditional — fails to heed Paul’s teaching.


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