Engaging the Whole Counsel of God

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2012: ESSAY

by John Van Sloten

“[God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” –Acts 17:25

We say we believe this, but do we really?

I grew up in a church whose worldview was founded on a hugely sovereign and providential understanding of God. We held a high view of creation and believed that our world was made by andbelonged to God. We understood that Jesus played a mysterious role in the creation process, that all things were made through and for him (Colossians 1:16; John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:2). We believed that he was now king, seated at the right hand of God, and was making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

We sided with John Calvin–the theologian of the Holy Spirit–when he wrote, “Even if for a single moment [God] withdrew his supportive hand, the universe would collapse,” and “all truth is inspired by the Holy Spirit.” And we believed that if we wore the spectacles of the scriptures, and had eyes of faith, we could read God’s words in creation—as though they were part of a book. But I never heard a sermon from that book, which doesn’t make sense. If the Holy Spirit whispers words via the created order–via nature and human nature; through the physical universe; and through human culturally mandated, cocreated products (through everything)–then shouldn’t we be listening to and preaching those words?

Calvin writes, “Whenever we come upon these matters [truth] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [show contempt toward] and reproach the Spirit himself” (Institutes 2.2.15).

I think that God has always meant for us to know him through both of his books–the Bible and creation. I believe these two books are meant to co-illumine one another and, when read together, give us a fuller understanding of who God is–the Bible speaking via written words, and creation speaking via many other languages. A two-book approach keeps us from idolatrous tendencies in either book’s direction (fundamentalist bibliolatry or nature/human nature worship). And I believe that, while Reformed theologians and preachers have talked a good talk regarding a worldview that holds to a huge understanding of the sovereignty of God (Calvin’s high view of the Holy Spirit; the doctrines of providence, general revelation, and common grace; Kuyper’s “not one square inch”; and the imago Dei), we really don’t practice what we preach. In fact we rarely ever preach it. And I believe that by relegating creational revelation to the place of mere illustration or even to an elevated place of middle wisdom, we risk “holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem” and, through either our naiveté, our ignorance, our intransigence, or our lack of imagination and creativity, come perilously close to showing contempt toward the Spirit.

How can we believe in such an immense view of the triune God and not believe that we can perceive and know him through all of the ways he moves before, in, behind, above, and through all created things?

Surely all things in creation have something to say about their Maker, sometimes implicitly, as a voice speaking through the innate goodness embedded in the created thing (like recognizing Van Gogh in his works); sometimes more explicitly, as the Spirit whispering through a created thing to us, like icons in the Orthodox tradition (beyond the sacred page it’s Thee I seek); and sometimes through a word that’s perceived from a distance, as when we step back and read history or circumstances as though they were parables.

In the Bible, God speaks through the history of the people of Israel, through the life story of Abraham, through the imago Dei in David, and through parables. In Matthew 13 Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God though stories of a farmer, weeds, seed, gravel, a bad neighbor, soils, trees, yeast, buried treasure, trespassers, jewel merchants, pearls, fish nets, and a household overseer. Psalm 24 teaches that our world belongs to God, the earth and everything in it, the world and all who live in it. Surely God can, and often does, speak through all that belongs to him. And I am convinced we’re meant to hear what he’s saying.

Responding to Hoezee

Some don’t agree, for a variety of reasons. Scott Hoezee’s biggest concern in the foregoing article seems to be that this approach puts creational revelation on par with biblical revelation. This is not the case. I think our church’s use of hyperbole in titling sermons, calling creational revelation a “text,” and the significant amount of time dedicated to the creational text in a sermon, may have contributed to this perception. Many of my own sermon titles, for example, have had only the name of the band, film, scientific field, artist, or sport in the title. In my mind, what I’m saying through a title like “Horton Hears a Who:Believing in the Unbelievable” is, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, as I’ve come to know it first through God’s revelation in the Bible, as it resonates and dialogues with God’s truth found in Dr. Seuss’s book Horton Hears a Who.” On any given Sunday I’ll give some variation of this explanation at the beginning of the service. For me, the Bible is the first and final authority. “Without the authoritative and inspired revelation of the Bible we’d have great difficulty understanding how God reveals himself through creation and culture…. Accepting the Bible’s unique authority invites us to open our eyes to see God’s glory, love, judgment, and truth all around us” (The Day Metallica Came to Church, 139).

Through the Bible, the gospel of Jesus Christ is both closer and clearer than in creational texts. The Bible is God’s written word. Creation doesn’t speak the same language, and its words are often less perspicuous. Most of us don’t speak “star,” “sculpture,” or “river” as well as we do English. But that’s not to say that God’s truth as it’s presented in a star, a sculpture, or a river is not authoritative or available to us. Of course, it must be. We just need to develop the receptive capacities to fully understand it, and trust that the Spirit can do the translation.

As Hoezee rightly states, “the content of general revelation … is not very detailed.” This is why I always preach from both of God’s books. The Bible brings cognitive gospel clarity via written words, and creation brings God’s truth via a diversely colorful multitude of other God-made languages (to speak to the rest of our senses). God is definitely not unilingual.

A second concern Hoezee raises relates to the revelatory authority or weight of cultural artifacts (as second- or third-tier derivative forms of revelation coming through human beings made in the image of God). I agree that God’s truth in these co-created cultural products is, in a sense, further away from and less clear than God’s truth in the Bible. In my view of the world, Rembrandt’s works are not on par with the authority of Paul’s New Testament writings (but they could be on par with those of Paul’s letters that didn’t make it into the Bible). But to make the argument that God’s truth somehow diminishes as it works its way through the imago Dei into culturally created products is, in my mind, limiting the work of the Holy Spirit. If it’s God’s truth, it continues. And if the Spirit authors all truth, then that authoritative work can happen at any tier, in any place, and at any time. Surely the Spirit is about its co-creating work everywhere, right now.

This is what I’m believing when I preach Coldplay: that lead singer Chris Martin, made in the image of God, possessing the sensus divinitatis (Calvin), having been created through and for Christ, known by God before the creation of the world, for such a time as this, inspired by a Holy Spirit that rains down beautiful lyrics on both the regenerate and the unregenerate, is expressing Spirit-led truth when he sings words like those found in “Us against the World,” from the album Mylo Xyloto.

Oh morning come bursting the clouds amen
Lift off this blindfold let me see again…

And I just want to be there when the lightning strikes
And the saints go marching in

I think the Holy Spirit graciously inspired these prayerful words, in a very common place, knowing that tens of thousands of “made in the image of God” souls would sing along–a prevenient grace that has concertgoers praying, whether or not they know it, whether or not they personally know Jesus Christ.

Surely the Holy Spirit is working in this way in the world, authoritatively drawing people to Jesus. And surely the Spirit has given those of us with saving faith, with the spectacles of the scriptures, eyes that can recognize his work when we see it. And again, it’s an iconic kind of seeing that I’m referring to here, a seeing that happens in concert with, and in conversation with, biblically articulated truth. God’s one Spirit is behind it all (as affirmed in so many Reformed doctrines), holding creation, bringing it to his desired end. And because of this all-expansive view of the Holy Spirit, I take issue with Hoezee’s statement that “when science develops a way to diagnose a strain of hepatitis, this is good knowledge, but it hardly has the force of revelation on a par with Paul’s telling us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” My question is, why the dichotomy? I think Jesus is quite literally reconciling the world to himself when science develops a way to diagnose a strain of hepatitis. He’s that powerful and active via the Holy Spirit in his resurrection, that much Lord of all creation. The universe really was (and is being) made through him. Christ really is reigning right now and even as we speak, his Spirit is at work, inspiring all truth and making all things new. Surely this must be who Jesus is.

It’s on this point, I think, that Hoezee and I differ. When I engage truth in a creational text, I feel as though I am having a real-time, personal interaction with Jesus Christ, illumined by the Spirit. When I preach the story of a film like Hugo, I’m preaching it as though it were Christ’s story, a kind of parable that he has authored. And I’m trusting that even as the Spirit conveys God’s truth through all of the sinful characters, stories, and messed up history of the Bible, so too the Spirit conveys God’s truth in the stories that play out in a sin-infected world today. God hasn’t changed. He’s done this before.

To Lief and Smith

God reveals himself through two books. I think we’re made to engage the whole counsel of God, which is why I have no problems bringing Metallica to church. Jason Lief (“Leave Metallica Alone! Why Metallica Coming to Church Is a Bad Idea,” Perspectives, February 2012) disagrees, saying, “We are better off just leaving [Metallica] alone.” Part of me gets where Lief is coming from. Over the years I’ve gotten many angry notes saying, “How dare you bring the Simpsons, Regina Spektor, Neil Young, particle physics, or Van Gogh into church!” People mistakenly believe that we’re baptizing these texts when we preach them, which is never the intent. Others are concerned that this approach is imperialistic, a new kind of cultural crusade. I’ve also seen the “rolling eyes” of young people as they first encounter what we’re doing. They think it’s a marketing schtick and that I’m a poser. My only hope when faced with these kinds of responses is that these people will hang around long enough to understand the deeper thing that’s going on. This is not about trying to be cool or relevant. This is not a bait and switch. We really do believe that God loves Arcade Fire, that God sees, and in fact coauthors, the beauty and truth of their musical indictment of modern life. My hope is that a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work through the band will give listeners more with which to know, love, and serve God (along with giving them a few discernment tools and the opportunity just to take in a fantastic song!).

Lief goes on to say, “I’m not sure this is God speaking through Metallica so much as it is Ulrich and Hetfield (Metallica’s cofounders) speaking to the human condition.” Again I wonder, why the mutual exclusivity? I think God speaks through the band even as they speak to the human condition, in much the same way that God spoke through the writings of the prophets. When I preached my sermon on Metallica Idirectly linked lead singer James Hetfield’s voice to that of the biblical prophets. Metallica, in many cases, gets angry at the same things that God, the prophets, and even Jesus got angry at. Same Spirit, different tongue–but Metallica’s voice added smoke and volume, a raging, shaking, rolling-over-top-of-you, growling blast to that anger. Metallica helped me understand what God’s anger might feel like, how powerful and overwhelming it must be. Through Metallica’s critique of the culture, through these modern-day “prophets,” I think God does say something to us, in much the same way that God says something through Amos’s critique of his culture. Those Old Testament prophets also “borrowed” material from their culture.

My understanding of both God and Metallica grows when I bring the band to church. In the Orthodox tradition, an icon is not a private devotional picture, but rather, “its theological place is within the liturgy, where it complements the proclamation of the word with the proclamation of the image” (Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, 109). The power in bringing Metallica to church lies in this complementary juxtaposition. Through understanding Jesus as the author of truth in both texts, my knowledge of his power and lordship is expanded, deepened, and made more present and real. As a pastor who’s passionate about people coming to know Jesus Christ, I think this approach is also a great way for the church to engage those outside the church, by coming alongside and showing them where the Spirit is already moving in their lives (in their yearnings, passions, righteous anger, desires for beauty and community). Likewise, it helps those within the church to know God more fully by teaching them how to listen to everything he’s saying.

James K. A. Smith isn’t so sure. Commenting on Jason Lief’s article, Smith writes, “A truly Reformed engagement with culture–and the arts–is not synonymous with evangelical strategies that, trying to overcome their past fundamentalism, eagerly baptize popular culture by ‘finding God’ in every album and sitcom” (“Finding God in…X,” The Twelve blog, February 28, 2012). Later he writes, “I’m not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel ‘message’ or ‘theistic’ propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or–worse–belaboured allegorical readings which see ‘Christ figures’ everywhere.”

I agree with Smith here. Simplistic searches for Christian types, symbols, and language are increasingly rampant in the church, finding cross shapes in proteins or galaxies or wherever. I think this oversimplified, “prove that God exists” approach is the biggest barrier to recognizing the deeper revelatory truths that, I believe, God is legitimately speaking through creation. Even as biblical parables can be preached in an overly instrumentalizing, typological, allegorical, or moralizing way, so too can creational texts. This doesn’t mean God’s truth in the parable isn’t there. It just means we missed it.

When it comes to reading God’s word in creation, I would argue that the challenge lies in accurate exegesis, not in the text itself, nor in its revelatory potential. If God’s truth is legitimately present in a creational text, I believe we are obliged (not just permitted) to seek it out. Why would we ever want to miss something the Spirit is saying? Our Reformed theological tradition is filled with the exegetical tools and wisdom to allow us to do this well. In fact, I think we can lead the church in this regard.

John Van Sloten is preaching pastor at New Hope Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta. You can find video of his Metallica sermon (and many other two-book/creational messages) atwww.newhopechurch.ca.