Thursday, June 5, 2008

God's Vision for the City

I admit, I'm being a bit facetious with the title of this post. But since 99% of what's written about "The City" is from a transformationist (and I would argue, postmillennial) perspective, I just couldn't resist the irony....

The common grace City is something that came into existence postlapsum (after the fall) for the purpose of creating a stage upon which the drama of redemption could be played out (Gen. 4:13-16). It is neither demonic nor divine, but rather is a place where cultural, non-religious activity is to be performed by believers and non-believers alike (I Pet. 2:13-17).

What, then, is "God's Vision for the City"? Is the City a legitimate institution? Is its secular identity something that makes it off-limits or in need of transformation?

(Please note, I am not asking whether people in the City should be evangelized, or whether we ought to show mercy to the poor. Yes to both.)

From the testimony of the Bible, it seems that God's vision for the City is that it remain what it is until the end. The story of Noah gives us a type of the final parousia, and there, Noah is called to be a "preacher of righteousness" while preparing the ark as the only hope for a doomed culture. And according to Jesus in Matt. 24:37ff, the days leading up to the Lord's coming will be no different -- the City will continue to exist, with its buying, selling, eating, drinking, and marriage, until God's purposes for it are exhausted. And when you take Rev. 17 and 18 into account, the conclusion seems inescabale that the City, "Babylon the Great," will be pro-nounced "Fallen! Fallen!" along with all its beauty, glory, merchantry, art, craftsmanship, and music.

If there is an implicit rebuke against God's people in any of these passages for their failure to transform Babylon into Jerusalem, I can't find it.

Can you?


  1. “The common grace City is something that came into existence postlapsum (after the fall) for the purpose of creating a stage upon which the drama of redemption could be played out (Gen. 4:13-16).”

    I sometimes wonder if this might serve as something of a mis-cue. It can be taken to imply that creation’s inherent value comes from how it is utilized for the purposes of redemption, which in turn can be taken to mean that creation needs to be redeemed. Instead, taken in context with the rest of what you are saying, it seems to me that the point really is that redemption has to be played out somewhere and creation as its stage only makes sense. But that’s far different from saying that creation needs redemption.

  2. "taken in context with the rest of what you are saying, it seems to me that the point really is that redemption has to be played out somewhere and creation as its stage only makes sense. But that’s far different from saying that creation needs redemption."

    Well, I do say explicitly that the city of man is a stage, so I don't really see where the confusion is coming from. To make it clearer, though, I will say that "The City" is not to be redeemed, but will be detsroyed on the last Day along with all that is common.

  3. No, no, the confusion is not something on your part. It's just something I wonder that critics might do: "If creation is the stage it must need redeeming." Sometimes I wondered if that is what happens in their minds. It used to in mine, at least. But then I realized that would sort of be like thinking that surface under the actors' feet was relevant to their task when, as good and necessary as it is, it's just a place to stand so they don't fall down.

    Blogging is hard.

  4. Does your argument depend on your use of Matthew 24 and Revelation 18-19, given that a partial preterist reading of the texts radically changes the meaning?

    This might not be the best place to challenge your hermeneutics but if your argument depends on these texts then it is a shaky foundation, unless you show definitively that your reading is correct.

  5. Jacob,

    That's true, I am approaching the issue as if Revelation were written in the 90s, and as though much of the Olivet Discourse were describing the end of the age.

    In my view, the burden of proof lies with those who deny this, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars down through the ages have said as much.

    I can't help but be a bit suspicious of preterists, given the fact that their views always seem to go hand in hand with their other agenda(s).

  6. "In my view, the burden of proof lies with those who deny this, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars down through the ages have said as much."

    Not to get too off track, but this isn't really a tenable statement. An early date for Rev. as well as a preterist interpretation of the Olivet discourses was the norm for the 19th cent. Robinson's Redating the New Testament is also helpful on this score.

    There's also the Syriac edition of the NT which says that John was on Patmos during Nero's reign, as well as the Muratorian Fragment which puts John's literature prior to Paul's.

    Various types of Preterism can be found in the fathers, Jesuits, John Owen, German liberals, and B.B. Warfield.

  7. Also, I can't help but question the use of theological "camps" going on here. When I think of "God's Vision for the City" folks, I think of Newbigin and Keller. Are either of these men really postmil?

    When I think of "transformationalism" I think of the Dutch neo-Calvinsts, who were all Amil.

    Indeed, the only tranformationalist postmils that come to mind are folks like the Christian Reconstructionists, since most of the Postmils in Reformed theology (and indeed the overwhelming North American tradition has been postmil-this last century exluded), were wholly committed to natural law and a version of common-sense realism.

    Didn't I see something about "other agendas" being a bad thing? We've gotta be more precise with the history here.

  8. Whether preterism is right or wrong at the moment (it's right) is irreveleant. I simply pointed out that you seem to clinch your argument on very shaky and contested ground.

    But I don't even need preterism to prove your argument from Revelation isn't air tight. Any number of hermeneutical paradigms can render it suspect (be it premillennial or amillennial despair).

    And then there's the fact that Augustine would disagree with you. This is demonstrated from reading City of God book 19.4. O'Donovan and Cavanaugh point out for Augustine that any secular city is a parody of the real one (it street terms, they saying secularism is a joke). BUt more on that later.

  9. Steven,

    My claim all along has been that one is not amillennial simply by saying so really loudly. When one's entire ministry is based around the goal of transforming The City spiritually, socially, and economically, I tend to pay less attention to the label he takes and more to the practical outworking of his vision.

    To me, Keller is a confused amill'ist at best, but more likely, he's postmill without realizing it.

  10. Jacob,

    I assume by "preterism is right" you don't mean full preterism, correct? Can you recite the Aopstles' Creed?

    You cite my failure to argue for an early-90s date for Revelation as evidence that I base my arguments on "very shaky ground." Do you really think that siding with the majority of scholars provides such a shaky foundation?

    Of course premillennialism provides an alternative to my position. So does atheism and German liberalism. So what? Your assumption seems to be that one may not espouse a view until he has first demolished every possible alternative. Who lives like that?

    At some point, Jacob, we all must take certain things for granted when we dialogue. When I initially wrote the post a few years ago, I was interacting with mainstream conservative Reformed people, not theonomists or preterists. I'm sorry I didn't sufficiently demonstrate all nineteen of my presuppositions before writing, but this is blogdom, stuff like that takes too long, and no one would read it.

    If premillennialism and not defending a late date of Revelation renders this post "suspect," then I think you're placing a burden on a blog that it is not meant to carry. So relax, have fun, and read blogs for their thoughtful and provocative nature. But don't mistake them for a seminary education.

  11. Yes, I am orthodox preterist.

    As to the shaky ground, I simply do not accept as a plausible argument that the overwhelming scholarship, simply by numbers, proves a late 90s date.

    As to the other alternatives, I was simply pointing out that a lot of other respectable, yea even amillennial, interpretations of Rev 18 come to different conclusions.

    As to taking things for granted, well maybe on some level we should. But given volatile topics and more symbolic passages, we simply can't take things like this for granted.

    I don't understand the reference to seminary education, so I'll let that pass. I went to seminary, though I don't like admitting that. You made a post (and by the way, aside from building on shaky ground, it was a rather coherent post. I have some major Augustinian bones to pick with it, but you set forth your case quite clearly and admirably).

  12. Jason,

    I think that this topic is indeed a properly eschatological one, but I do not believe that it is a millennial one. I say this for a few reasons. The first is again that "transformationalism" was most loudly espoused by the Dutch Neo-Calvinists who were, to a man, amillennialist. Francis Schaeffer, another prime example of this (where would Crossway or Covenant College & Seminary be without him?), was premillennial.

    Secondly, the American theologians who formed the "spirituality of the Church" doctrine (Thornwell, Dabney, etc.) were, to a man, postmillennial. I'm not at all convinced that they were calling for the same thing that someone like D.G. Hart is calling for today, however, mainly since they defended the civil institution of slavery by appealing to the Bible. Dabney is particularly hard to swallow when he goes from arguing against the tyranny of public religion to defending the right to bear slaves in about twenty pages. But I digress... (I actually like Dabney most of the time.)

    And so perhaps instead of millennial categories to describe our difference we could point to the relationship between nature and grace.

    Judging from your earlier comment about the City of Man being destroyed at the eschaton, I would suggest that the two points of views are these:

    1)Transformationalism holds that grace regenerates and transfigures nature and 2)Modern Two Kingdoms holds that grace replaces nature. Since this is the case, nature is not to be infused with grace until the final judgment, lest it experience premature violence.

    That seems to be a more accurate use of historical dogmatic thought, in my opinion, but I don't want to unfairly prejudice the positions.

    Starting from this metaphysical assumption, we can then see how practice is affected. Retaining Keller and Newbigin as examples, we can see that the transformationalists go from the institutional structure of the Church into the city and seek to plant seeds of renewal among families, communities, and occupations- what we call "culture" for shorthand. They don't destroy the indigenous culture, but they do seek to supplement it with Christian principles of charity (best case scenario).

    The other side's practice is then what? To leave the city as city, not a proper subject for redemption, and call people into the institutional church? I heard Hart lecture on "punctuated Christianity" and this was my understanding of his view. The Christian commonwealth, for him, only exists between the Call to Worship and the Benediction. Is that essentially correct?

    If so, then I think we see that "grace" (properly speaking) is not to be infused in nature, from this point of view. Indeed, nature is to remain as is, roughly, until such time as God re-enters and destroys all that was natural to creation. "Christian culture" then is a sort of liturgical manifestation amidst the worldly exile which will only come to bloom after the second-Coming of Christ.


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