Saturday, August 28, 2021

Two Texts and the Bridge Between

Last May 11th, 2021 I was privileged to speak at a conference entitled, "Reading Two Texts" at Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, AZ. Here is my manuscript:

“Two Texts and the Bridge Between”

“The bridge” between the two texts of Scripture and Culture are the people communicating back and forth. This might be considered a third “text,” and I think it is. People as a distinct component of the triad makes sense. Marty says that culture is “…the sum total of the processes and products by which humans do anything and everything to nature (divine creation).”[1] Here, humans “do” upon culture; and they most certainly “do” upon Scripture for better or worse. Nevertheless, in relation to both Scripture and the culture, people are distinct; they stand between as a bridge.

Scripture reveals an anthropology informing us of the well-known dichotomy or trichotomy (body, spirit, and soul). It also informs us of core sin with its accompanying resistance towards God (and this counts also for the Christian whose flesh gladly forsakes the call to witness, or when we do, gladly judges too harshly those they might be witnessing to). Furthermore, Scripture also teaches that people regardless of their culture are negatively impacted by the demonic, and I think we can say these influences are not exactly the same wherever we go.

Culture, however, also provides an anthropology inclusive of myriad worldviews, experiences, and other subjective lenses. Culture reveals people’s traditions, foods, music, rituals (things we can observe), but also values, beliefs, convictions as to what is real or not real, and of course ultimate allegiances (things we detect  signs about, but don’t actually see). We must discover these through engagement.

Engagement seeks to accomplish getting into the shoes of the person we engage with that we might share the Gospel in unique application to the unique person (while maintaining Scripture’s integrity), but while also breathing in the culture that can both help us to engage if we are reading it, or hinder our engagement if we are not. We must be Christians who love both the Word and people. That means we must be willing – as I argue in the book – “[to] continue mining not only the Word of God but also the people God puts in our lives to engage.”[2]

Thus, I think we should strive to:

1.     Read the TEXT of SACRED SCRIPTURE for the Gospel we bring to others

2.     Read the TEXT of PEOPLE engaging (ourselves and the other person)

3.     Read the TEXT of CULTURE which affects and influences engagement

In the book, I address all three texts in which the word “engages” reflects the Christian engaging the text hopefully with some level of accuracy (seeking a lively and loving back-and-forth with the one for whom Christ died but may yet not know Christ), and of course while also engaging with cultural considerations – visible and invisible – which invariably impact the conversation or as I like to call it the “engagement.” Yes, definitions are vital as Amazon has been selling my book also to people interested in dating and preparing for marriage.

I suggest it could be helpful to see the three components or texts in terms of an “engagement triangle.” Atop the equilateral triangle is PERSPECTIVE, then at the base point to the right is PEOPLE, and then going across to the base point on the left is PLACE.


PERSPECTIVE binds us to the text of Holy Scripture, the living Word of Christ, and I recommend 1st Peter 3:15 as a great launch in consideration of the first text especially as I argue that ἀπολογίαν be unbound to the popular idea in contemporary Christian apologetics often giving the impression that “to give an answer” requires proficiency in philosophy, logic, and rhetoric. Instead, a great way to instill confidence in the royal priest-Christian is to see its basic meaning which is “positive testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel.”[3] In other words, live a holy life and speak truth about the Savior Jesus Christ which simply asserts in loving fashion that God is for those we engage with on account of His Son, Jesus.

And while all this goes under the rubric of Scriptural perspective, the Christian is greatly equipped here as one-half of the bridge preparing to engage with the other half. The Christian is helped with this 1st Peter 3:15 perspective, because while this text is often treated as the sedes doctrinae of Christian apologetics and while the field is eager to jump into providing a “rational defense” for the faith, it is easy to miss entirely the first part of the verse: “but in your hearts honor Christ the LORD as holy…”.

That is instead of being ready to pounce on someone to demonstrate the faith as compelling (while often confusing the idea “defense” with being defensive), the Christian is led first to a real piety between themselves and God. “Indeed, the Early Church Father Clement of Alexandria in referring to 1 Peter 3:15 wrote, ‘This is just what the Lord’s Prayer says: “Hallowed be your name.”[4] And we all know how Luther treated this in the Catechism.[5] The Venerable Bede elaborated: “What does it mean to sanctify God in your heart if not to love that holiness of his which is beyond understanding, in the innermost depths of your heart? Think what strength to overcome all enemies God gives to those from whose heart his holiness shines forth.”[6]

In all this we are reminded the Sacred TEXT is also a living Word which equips us not only to faithfully speak doctrine but empowers the life of love toward God and the neighbor as it facilitates the convicting, counseling, and comforting conducted by the Holy Spirit. We in the Christian Church today in the U.S. need this particular equipping because the context in which St. Peter wrote was much like ours.

Our cultural milieu, as Peter’s, is an environment not merely post-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian.[7] Such conditions often inspire a defensive reflex akin to what we see in “Christian” nationalism primed to demonize opponents. This is how the world behaves. The Christian, however, in loving God – living out this holiness Peter describes – demonstrates Christ’s active righteousness as is described (for example) in the Matthean teaching on loving the enemy and praying for those who persecute Christians.

When the Christian does not return evil for evil (1 Peter 3:9) but rather prioritizes loving God and serving neighbor (our true vocation, and the one that runs through all other so-called “vocations”), then the one without Christ might very well become intrigued and wonder, “What causes you to live this way?” or “Why do you take this?” or simply the observation even if while silent, “This one is different.” Doors open for the Gospel under such circumstances. People are always curious about strange things, and it is strange to encounter nowadays a person who has better things to do than complain in a world with so much to complain about. In fact, if we would indeed identify many of the current movements we see in the culture as relating to cultural Marxism, then we are actually being given by God the wonderful opportunity to counter attempts to unmask with the commitment to serve. In this way we are truly salt and light of the world.

Similarly, the Christian who is part of the bridge is greatly impacted by the Scriptural perspective in the latter half of 1 Peter 3:15: “…yet do it with gentleness and respect.” “Too often, Christians talk down to those who don’t know the Gospel. Christians can come off as arrogant people who spend their time judging those they consider to be ‘sinners.’… There are many reasons [however] for the Christian to maintain humility when they engage. One reason is that the Gospel the Christian speaks is the Gospel the Christian needs as much as anyone. In other words, the Christian does not approach the unbeliever as though the unbeliever is the only sinner in the engagement. On the contrary, since the Christian has a front-row seat to their own sin in their own life, the Christian should be convinced that they are the worse sinner between the two.”[8]

“The second reason Christians maintain humility is because we have a high responsibility to get it right for God and for the precious person we are engaging with. This person standing in front of you is someone the King of kings lived, died, and rose for. They were created by God and saved by God. They are invaluable to the Lord. If this is the case, how can the Christian be arrogant during engagement? It should be unheard of.”[9]

“One more reason to be humble (the third reason): There really aren’t just two people in the engagement, but three. The Lord is there. He is in on the engagement. He is there to help lead the Christian, and He is there to help the one without Christ to receive the Gospel in faith (or do whatever needs to be done for that person at that moment in time…)… Bottom line: The Lord is listening to what the Christian is saying and how they are saying it. We are speaking before God. If this does not make the Christian humble in engagement, nothing will.”[10]

Luther says that “when you are challenged and are questioned with regard to your faith, you should not answer with proud words and act defiantly…you should conduct yourself reverently and humbly, as though you were standing before God’s tribunal and had to give an answer there.”[11] The ancient teacher Didymus the Blind may have said it best: “Give…a proper answer and…do so with meekness and in the fear of God. For whoever says anything about God must do so as if God himself were present to hear him.”[12]

Thus far we have considered the text of Scripture preparing the first half of the bridge (vis-à-vis the Christian), but now we need to focus on the bridge in toto.  

First of all, Christians ought always be primed to discover common ground with whomever they speak. No need to look far and wide for this as we all share the universal head and heart problems of humanity. From this common ground there is no deviation. 1 Corinthians 2:14 records the head problem related to what people know (or at least what they are willing to grant they know):[13] “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Jeremiah 17:9 touches on our subjective experience regarding the stark reality of the human heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” From these, the Christian gains insight about the interaction on the whole bridge:

1.     The natural condition of a person predisposes them to resist accepting the Gospel. In fact, the Scriptures state at 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” The Christian should never be surprised or put off by a negative response, and it would be silly to take it personally.

2.     The Christian will remember that the Holy Spirit is calling the shots. HE works when and where He pleases. We are called to be patient. Sometimes, Christians are put to the test: Will we love a person enough not to give up on them? Will we wait for the Holy Spirit to choose the right time?

3.    The Christian will therefore be willing to share the Law and Gospel over and over again without becoming obnoxious or rude toward skepticism, knowing that some people just need more time to come to faith. In this way, Christians show great tolerance in the face of intolerance.[14]

Regardless of the myriad of subjective reactions and responses we might encounter, there is no question that we always have an available connection to whomever we engage. I’m encouraged to keep in mind that we stand by both a narrow and broad understanding of the imago Dei. In the narrow sense of the image of God when our thoughts were God’s thoughts, and when our ways were God’s ways,[15] we are no longer. Sin came into the world and caused us to die in respect to the narrow imago Dei.

The broad sense of the imago Dei, however, has not been lost. It is still there. “It is not that will, feelings, and faculties are lost, but that they are now utterly out of sorts, no longer working in harmony. That is, the imago Dei is not a substance or exceptional trait, it is not a faculty, and it is not to be confused with the soul or the parts of man himself.”[16] With these details in mind, we can now deal with what some people say is a contradiction: “How can you say that the image of God was lost when after the fall [recorded in Genesis 3], Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 [which obviously are after Genesis 3] refer to people as still being in the image of God?”[17] The distinction between narrow and broad comes to the rescue here.

Johann Gerhard elucidated:

“If the image of God refers to some moral principles which are born in us and with us and which consist in some tiny remnants of the divine image in the mind and will of man, then too with regard to these most minute particles we maintain that the image of God was not utterly lost. In fact, the work of the Law is still written in the hearts of men [Romans 2:15] even of the unregenerate.”[18]

Even while Luther rightly warned of fallen reason as the devil’s prostitute,[19] there is still an inherent point of contact between the Christian and unbeliever both of whom form the bridge:

“Perhaps the classic scriptural example of [this point of contact] is St. Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. St. Paul’s use of reason and rationality is painstakingly lucid. It is exciting to see St. Paul appealing to the Athenians’ natural knowledge of God. Though their knowledge is darkened and pluralistic, St. Paul builds upon it by presenting the doctrine of creation and the creator. He goes on to apply the work of the law by correcting the limitations placed on God via temples made by man and images formed by the art and imagination of man, and reasonably shows the superiority of the one raised from the dead.”[20]

“What is described here [in Acts 17] is what I like to refer to as ‘the hook of engagement.’[21] Alister McGrath gives an insightful elaboration on what is already taught about the natural knowledge of God in Romans 1 (observation of creation) and Romans 2 (possession of conscience): “Reason, then, provides an important point of contact for the gospel. Though fallen, reason still possesses the ability to grasp and point, however darkly, toward the reality of God.”[22] Engagement seeks the hook as St. Paul did with the Athenians so that he could then proceed with the only thing that turns people to God: the Gospel of the resurrected Christ.[23]

So, how do we discover such a hook during engagement? Here just as the Christian comes equipped through the SCRIPTURAL text, the Christian will now seek to read the CULTURAL text of which the reason of both parties might relate to. “…the Lord permits us to live in the culture that threatens our faith. We must trust that God knows exactly what He is doing in and through His engaging people. In fact, He has strategically positioned each of us in the culture…Since the Christian lives in the culture, which produces conflict between faith and worldly influences, God permits the Christian to relate to many people who live without Christ in that same culture. If Christians are not in the culture, who will be God’s representatives there? In other words, as God allows Christians to experience conflict with culture, the Christian learns of the very conflicts that block the Gospel for those who are living in the culture without knowledge of the Savior!... When we get to suffer in the culture [alongside the other who also suffers in it], the Lord is at the same time connecting us to those without Christ in the same culture. When culture is shared, we have a God-given segue for engagement.”[24]

When I wrote Faith That Engages the Culture, I wanted to equip our people in the Church on how to conduct the goal of finding common ground especially when topics come up that are oftentimes presented as antithetical to the faith which might derail engagement. But culture always puts us in a position to find common ground – and when I say “always” I mean it -- for example:

1.     When engaging science: The Christian also shares in the benefits of science.

2.   When engaging politics: The Christian shares basic political goals like protection and peace.

3.     When engaging personhood: The Christian has also violated the 5th commandment.

4.     When engaging sexuality: The Christian has also violated the 6th commandment.

5.     When engaging addiction: The Christian is not immune.

6.     When engaging depression: The Christian is not incapable of having mental illnesses.[25]

This is to say that we should place considerable stock in discovering what is important to the person we are engaging with. Luther was looking to the Word and at other people at the same time when in his Treatise on Christian Liberty (The Freedom of a Christian): As he peered at Scripture, he knew he was a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; and as he peered at people -- having been enlightened through Scripture -- he knew he was a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[26]

“In Christ, we choose to be ‘subject to all.’ We choose to put others ahead of ourselves. If we are doing it for engagement, however, how important is it that we continue mining not only the Word of God but also the people God puts in our lives to engage? That is, the Christian is to invest in getting to know people with the same vigor they have for getting to know the Word of Christ.”[27]

“A great mistake is made when we prioritize the Word but then assume that we should express it the same way to everyone. This is laziness. While we never change the meaning of Scripture nor ‘accommodate’ people by compromising what Scripture says, we do, however, seek to apply the Scripture in light of the unique person we are engaging.”[28]

How do we invest? The Holy Spirit led St. Paul to answer:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

And here I would to hypothesize what St. Paul might have added to the text here if he had attended this conference: "To the decentered in post-modernism, I became as one decentered in post-modernism." Lutheran Christians have a segue for connecting as echoed by Dr. Jim Voelz yesterday in reference to the "Newtonian" and "Einsteinian" antinomy: "Lutherans like this." [note: Dr. Jim Voelz explained that the two realms of physics: the Einsteinian that sees reality at the sub-atomic level or what we cannot see with our fleshly eyes AND the Newtonian that corresponds to what we observe and consider plainly empirical might be analogous to our sacred theology in that we know that God's unfathomable grace and monergistic working generates all our lives (including our good works, our confession of faith, etc.) AND our experiential doing/living out of the Christian faith. Which of the two is real and biblical? Both!] is drenched in paradox or as I referred to them in my first book: "dualities" (in Faith That Sees Through the Culture). If cultural marxism is indeed about "unmasking," let it unmask us to find that the most powerful message for true liberation from sin, death and the power of the devil does not lie in revealing sub-conscious oppression and victimization, but in engaging others with the greatest humility towards all people the world has ever known in Jesus Christ. I think we can reach those decentered by embracing "Einstein" be it through provocative possibilities (for example, Hugh Ross's comparison of Christ's two natures to string theory), or by simply keeping in mind that when St. Peter wrote, "but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy," that he was describing a simultaneous "Newtonian" and "Einsteinian" must practice piety in very "Newtonian" ways, but the holiness wrought by the Spirit is mysterious and as "Einsteinian" as divine monergism can be. The key is to not get flustered or impatient. Demonstrate that the true God loves to unmask all people and all manipulative agendas so that all would repent. Then, just speak the simple Newtonian real space-time Good News of what Jesus did when He come in the flesh.

During engagement “the goal should be to capitalize on what is the same. We can speak naturally to this since there is instant common ground. On the other hand, we also want to be aware of what is different. We do this not to be agitated by those differences or to judge them, but rather that we might respect them, even if we cannot understand them or agree with them. By highlighting what is the same and respecting what is different, we can begin to build engagement bridges that demonstrate we value and care about the person we are engaging with.”[29]

“When St. Paul states at verse 19 [of 1 Corinthians] that he made himself a servant to all, that he might win more of them, Paul was stating his willingness to make personal adjustments for others so that nothing would unnecessarily get in the way of people receiving the Gospel he preached…What was St. Paul really doing? He “showed himself a model of missionary adaptability.”[30] This attitude of adaptability imitates what our Savior did for us all: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). St. Paul had what was an ‘apparently chameleonlike stance in matters of social relationships.’[31]

The Early Church theologian Ambrosiaster was magnificent in his observations:

“Did Paul merely pretend to be all things to all men, in the way that flatterers do? No. He was a man of God and a doctor of the spirit who could diagnose every pain, and with great diligence he tended them and sympathized with them all. We all have something or other in common with everyone. This empathy is what Paul embodied in dealing with each particular person.”[32]

“St. Augustine states flatly that St. Paul wasn’t pretending to be what he was not, but rather, he was showing compassion. He illustrated, ‘A person who nurses a sick man becomes, in a sense sick himself, not by pretending to have a fever but by thinking sympathetically how he would like to be treated if he were sick himself.’”[33]

Indeed, while making it a priority to humbly, gently, and reverently “read” the TEXT of ourselves and those we engage – even if at the end of the day all we can decipher is that both are sin-sick – then may we do it so that the TEXT of the saving Gospel does not hang in the air, but so that it might connect to the TEXT of the culture which God desires to be filled with the light of that same saving Gospel. This is the reason we pursue the bridge: to build it and to read it also as another text so that the two other texts might find salutary complementarity to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and for the great benefit for all of those for whom Jesus died and rose, anyone and everyone we might engage.

[1] Martin E. Marty, “Articles of War, Articles of Peace: Christianity and Culture,” in Christ and Culture in Dialogue: Constructive Themes and Practical Applications, ed. Angus J. L. Menuge (St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 1999), 57.

[2] Alfonso Espinosa, Faith That Engages the Culture, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2021).

[3] The Lutheran Study Bible, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 2155.

[4] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XI (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 104.

[5] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 20. Luther taught: “What does this mean?” “God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.” How is God’s name kept holy?” “God’s name is kept holy when the Word of Christ is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”

[6] Bray, James, 1-2 Peter, 105.

[7] Espinosa, 56.

[8] Espinosa, 62.

[9] Espinosa, 62-63.

[10] Espinosa, 63.

[11] AE 30:108.

[12] Bray, James, 1-2 Peter, 104.

[13] Romans 1:18 teaches that the unrighteous “suppress the truth;” it is not as though they are unaware of it.

[14] Espinosa, 27.

[15] The fall of man caused the exact opposite condition: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

[16] Alfonso Odilon Espinosa, “Apologetics in Pastoral Theology,” in Theologia et Apologia: Essays in Reformation Theology and Its Defense Presented to Rod Rosenbladt, ed. Adam S. Franciso, Lorey D. Mass, and Steven P. Mueller (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 325.

[17] Espinosa, Faith That Engages the Culture, 29.

[18] Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard, The Doctrine of Man in Classical Lutheran Theology, ed. Herman A. Preus and Edmund Smits, trans. Mario Colacci et al. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1962), 38.

[19] Martin Luther, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, comp., Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 1161.

[20] Espinosa, “Apologetics in Pastoral Theology,” 322.

[21] Espinosa, Faith That Engages the Culture, 30. I first used this terminology in Theologia et Apologia, page 323, but I use it in a more expansive way here as I am not limiting the idea to apologetics.

[22] Alister E. McGrath, Intelletuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith through Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 37.

[23] Espinosa, 30.

[24] Espinosa, 43-44.

[25] Espinosa, 44-45.

[26] AE 31:344.

[27] Espinosa, 68.

[28] Espinosa, 68.

[29] Espinosa, 69.

[30] Gregory J. Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 314.

[31] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev.ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 467.

[32] Gerald Bray, ed., 1-2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 86.

[33] Bray, 1-2 Corinthians, 86.