Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) transports triglycerides and cholesterol to repair and to provide cells with energy. We know this because modern science has discovered this reality and invented the language (low-density lipoprotein, triglycerides, and cholesterol) to conceptualize how my body works.
We use all sorts of words that our culture has invented and which derive from larger concepts. We engage in a capitalistic, free-market economy. We program with Java and Ruby. And like LDL or other medical concepts, we use these words freely and participate in their respective systems of thought (e.g., the free market, nutrition, etc.).
But can using language and engaging cultural ideas have a negative outcome? Some think so. A group of American evangelicals have used the analytic tools of a contemporary political ideology to describe inequality in American culture. In response, a second group has decried such a method as being incompatible with Christianity. Who is right?
Well, the answer to such questions relies on how we understand cultural words and ideas and their ability to integrate into Christian modes of thinking. Here are some scriptural and non-scriptural examples that will ground our thinking on the matter.
Paul to the Corinthians
When writing to the Corinthians Paul uses words like sophia, teleios (mature), pneumatikos (spiritual), pseuxikos (physical), mystery, “spirit of the world,” gnosis, neos, pleroma (fullness), and so on. This language draws from the pool of nascent gnosticism. Yet Paul does not use it to communicate gnostic ideas. Just the opposite.
Regarding Paul’s use of (proto)gnostic vocabulary, Samuel Lauecli observes, “There is a tension between the meaning [of the vocabulary in its original frame and the new frame into which it is inserted” (The Language of Faith: 19; cited in Thiselton 2000: 226). That tension finds resolution when we observe how Paul uses (proto)gnostic language and why.
As to why, likely because the Corinthians used those words. Many felt they were superior due to their gifts. They were the true gnostics (1 Cor 8:1). But he uses common language to redefine and reassert Christian theology. As to how, Anthony Thiselton explains:
Paul takes up the major catchwords which had become embedded in the life of the church at Corinth, and his most urgent task at this point is neither to reject their validity nor to bypass what was important for his readers, but to reclaim the terms for the gospel by redefining them in the light of the nature of God and of the gospel (2000: 224).
The point is that Paul works in a Greek-speaking world in which he uses common vocabulary and concepts. Yet he does not use the word pleroma (fullness) according to gnostic dictums. He reclaims it by taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (e.g., Eph 1:23; 3:19).
Christians today may use the word nature that comes from the natural sciences. Yet we reclaim its meaning since we understood nature to be created by God with a purpose. Or even consider the word science, so formulated during the Enlightenment with its attendant meanings and perfect in recent times. Christians may define science as the study of first principles and the phenomena that follow them—not as the study of repeatable patterns observed in nature.
This adaption happens intuitively and constantly. Christians live in a world in which cultures create language, ideas, inventions, laws, and so forth. So we adapt and we reclaim.
John in his Gospel
John wrote his Gospel about 60 years after Jesus died. If the early witness of Papias can be trusted, John spent this time telling the Jesus story to all and sundry. One key obstacle Christians had to overcome in the worship of Jesus through the sacraments and Word was the issue of monotheism. How can they worship Jesus and the Father while remaining monotheists?
John’s answer appears in the first chapter of his Gospel. He claims that Christ was the Logos (John 1:1, 14). The Logos was in the beginning, was with God, was God, and created all (Gen 1:1–3). Now the term Logos has a multiplicity of meaning in the Greek world.
According to Oscar Cullmann, Logos functioned in early Hellenistic philosophy to refer to cosmic law that remains present in the intellect (1963: 251). Other conceptions included World Soul as well as a personified redeemer called the Logos (1963: 251–253). John must have realized this wide-ranging sense of Logos. So he used the commonplace idea of Logos yet applied a very specific understanding of its meaning.
Pointedly, John claims that the Logos became flesh, became a historical person. He apparently did not think it was a problem to use a word so common in pagan, philosophical, and pantheistic thought.
Instead, he strategically used the term Logos because of its cultural resonances and meaning. But then he specified exactly what he meant by Logos, which certainly draws from the cultural norms (Logos means notion, Word, cosmic law, etc.). Yet John also gave it a uniquely Christological sense by claiming that the Word became flesh (John 1:14).
Early Christians also reclaimed words and ideas for the faith
Christians following the New Testament era quickly adapted cultural institutions in uniquely Christian ways. During the second century, many Christians used the genre of apology to defend the Christian faith. Justin Martyr (2nd ce.) also styled himself as a philosopher, yet one whose pursuit of truth led him to the Logos and obedience to the word.
Clement of Alexandria reclaimed the term Gnostic, applying it to Christians and not the ubiquitous and variegated gnosticisms of his day. To register with the government, the earliest Christians (even in NT times) registered as Mystery Cults with the Roman Government (think: charitable status today).
Yet as history shows, some adaptations to the culture went the wrong way. Eastern Christians gave too much authority to the Emperor and gave their patriarch political power. This ended up compromising the purity of the church. Soon the Green and Blue parties of the ancient chariot games started to demarcate Christians: Blues and Greens did not get along (think: republican and democratic Christians today).
So how should use cultural ideas and words?
Critically, and by discerning “what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Discernment means distinguishing good from bad, better from worse. So using the language of Logos by discerning what elements are good and by specifying his meaning was good for John. Compromising the faith with politics (Greens and Blues) was bad for medieval Romans in the East.
In a provocative tweet, Neil Shenvi recently said:
- “Swallow the meat and spit out the bones”
- “Swallow the meat and spit out the poison”
#2 is not only unwise; it’s impossible. Don’t apply #1 where #2 would be the better analogy.
He provides two criteria for discernment. And he makes the point that some ideas are poisonous. So they are not worth adapting or retaking. Consider pornography. Should Christians use porn-ridden language and ideas since there is some wisdom to be gained? Almost certainly not. It’s poison.
But what about the natural sciences and geology? Almost certainly yes. It’s meat that may have some bones in it to spit out.
I think we can conclude the following. First, New Testament authors and early Christian felt no compulsion to avoid using cultural words and notions. But, second, they specified exactly what they meant when using words like fullness, sophia, or Logos. In this regard, the non-defined use of cultural ideas seems out of line with Christian thinking.
Lastly, we need to renew our minds by knowing God so that we can discern what benefits and what does not. Some ideas are poison. Others have gristle. Still others are lean and fitting.
That takes biblical discernment. But it certainly must happen or else we would not even be able to make nutrition decisions today (based on nutrition science) or learn aeronautic theory to fly airplanes or do whatever else we might like to do.