Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In Praise of Profanity

One of my former seminary profs recently presented a paper to the Evangelical Theological Society titled "In Praise of Profanity" (or something like that). And no, he wasn't talking about cuss words....
The term "profanity," of course, refers to things that are profane. Now "profane" can mean vulgar, but it doesn't have to mean that. One of the dictionary's definitions is simply "secular and non-religious." In other words, things that are profane are distinct from things that are holy; they are non-holy, but not necessarily unholy. Get it?

Understanding this category is crucial for understanding the two kingdoms paradigm. Some areas of life -- particularly those belonging to the civil kingdom -- are non-religious, i.e. they do not properly belong to the category of redemption, but to the category of creation. Yes, God still rules these areas, but he does so as Creator, not as Redeemer.

Consider a couple New Testament passages. First, Rom. 13:1-7. Here we read that all people, including believers, are to subject themselves to the government, even if it is evil and corrupt (which it was when Paul wrote this). The reason for this submission is that the civil magistrate bears the sword as a minister of God (v. 4). Therefore we are to render to Caesar his due: taxes, revenue, honor, and respect (v. 8).

Secondly, look at I Pet. 2:11-17. Describing our conduct "among the Gentiles" (or, out in the world), the apostle tells us to be subject to "every human institution" (vv. 12, 13). The reason we are to live this way is that we, like the Jews during their Babylonian captivity who received the same instruction, are "sojourners and exiles" in this age (v. 11). Our goal, like our Old Testament counterparts, is to pray for and seek the prosperity of our leaders and land, "that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (I Tim. 2:2; cf. Jer. 29:4-7).

What's conspicuous (and perhaps disappointing) by its absense is the call to redeem the culture and transform it into the kingdom of Christ. But the reason this call is absent from the biblical narrative (with the exception of typological, theocratic contexts like Israel in the holy land) is that, in God's economy, the civil and spiritual kingdoms are distinct. And further, this is how God has ordained life to be, at least in this present age.

Or to return to what I mentioned above, there is a category that is properly called "profane," and the civil matters that fall into this category (politics, art, dentistry) are just that, profane. They are not unholy, but non-holy. They are not sacred, but secular. They are not cultic, but cultural. In a word, these things are neither demonic nor divine, but are simply common grace endeavors that were never intended to be forcefully transferred or transformed from one category to the other.

So if the art you like doesn't depict biblical scenery, if the politician you voted for doesn't invoke the name of Jesus, or if the guy who tuned up your car doesn't have a fish on his add in the Yellow Pages, don't worry. Common grace blessings are just that: common to all God's creatures (believing or not). Until we recognize this, we'll never be able to enjoy them.

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