A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Staying in Balance: Word & World
May 7, 2015
Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian, reported to a Time magazine interviewer in 1963 that he had long taught seminarians that faithful pastors always read their Bible and their newspaper together, being sure always to interpret the newspaper through the lens of the Bible. The ideal of keeping “the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other” resonates deeply with Presbyterians. We want neither to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, nor so enmeshed in the world that we forget that Jesus died to redeem it rather than simply to endorse it.
I have heard some devoted Christians accuse other Christians of letting the world entirely set their agenda. Meanwhile I’ve heard others speak dismissively of Christians who they deem to be out of step with and therefore irrelevant to the surrounding world. After having traveled much in churches across wide theological, political, and social spectrums, I have come to believe that both critiques largely miss what’s really going on with folk whose perspectives differ from their own. Most Presbyterians do seek diligently to be engaged with both the Word of Scripture and the world around them.
John Calvin was under no illusion about how deeply our sin necessitates that we have a Savior. Some of his heirs believed they captured his thought well by saying that human beings are bound in “total depravity” – that the world is entirely crooked, broken, and lost. But we need to be cautious here, as Calvin made clear that the image of God is not destroyed by our sin, but defaced and distorted. Even when our sin is at its most grievous, we still bear the divine image, no matter how clouded it may be.
In referring to the created world as the “theater of God’s glory,” (e.g. Institutes of the Christian Religion I.14.20), Calvin did not exclude human beings. The whole of creation still declares the glory of God through its wondrous order and beauty. God’s world is not essentially evil, but essentially good, even when its goodness is twisted, compromised, or obscured by our sin. Its beauty and goodness are still abundantly apparent wherever we cast our eye – in science and nature, in art and culture, and so much more.
The purpose of the divine Word – that is, of God engaging and inhabiting the world – is not to nullify, but to bless and redeem the world. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
God’s self is revealed just as surely in the created world as in the redemptive word spoken to us through the prophets, and embodied and imparted to us in Jesus of Nazareth. This conviction amongst Calvin and his colleagues is evident in their establishing what many consider to be the first modern European university in Geneva, as well as the most rigorous theological training program anywhere for pastors, elders, and church members.
Any theology, any worship, any outreach program that casts the world primarily as an enemy to be opposed is misguided. Conversely, any attempt to accomplish the church’s work that is not thoroughly anchored in the Word of God witnessed in Scripture and consummately revealed in Jesus is insufficient.
Alas, even though the best of our heritage leads us otherwise, Presbyterians have sometimes fallen to one side or the other of this delicate balance of Word and world. We have even arrayed against each other in theological, social, or political tug-of-war, when in truth both perspectives are critical for aligning with the God’s purpose in creating and redeeming the world.
We who preach and teach in the church need intentionally and continually to demonstrate how the word of Scripture always helps us see more clearly and engage more fully the world around us. For Presbyterians, the world’s issues and questions are inevitably our own issues and questions, which we engage by reading our world through the lens of God’s Word.
When the world of our experience changes, we are called neither to reject such changes out of hand nor to abandon our foundation in God’s Word. Rather, such changes in our world call us to engage God’s Word anew, just as the early Christian community heard their Scriptures in new ways after having encountered a new world of God’s saving work through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture remained constant for them, but they came to understand it differently with regard to the place of Gentiles, observance of the Sabbath, ceremonial and dietary laws, and so much more.
As we listen for the voice of the Spirit in the Word, our Reformed tradition insists that we do so in the context of acknowledging that this same Spirit is also at work in the world around us. How are we doing with staying diligently attentive both to the Word of God in Scripture and to the world around us?
Listening with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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