But the fourth reason is the one I really want to talk about. The fundamentalists get the idea of antithesis. Undoubtedly, there are things we disagree about, such as the doctrines of grace. (We candidly discussed this with the principal and I am not too concerned about my kids having Finney shoved down their throats in elementary school Bible classes — but I will be watching.) But I find in general that the fundamentalists get the idea that the Bible really is the Word of God and that our only salvation is in the blood of Christ. There is no talk about postmodern hermeneutics among the fundamentalists. They believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says so, and so do I. They believe that men, women, and children are sinners who must believe in the cross in order to be saved. There is no talk of alternative theories of the atonement with them. They understand that the church must stand out against the world, that holiness is our calling, and that Christians are to witness to the lost. Amen, amen, and amen. They get the Christian antithesis, that light has shined in the darkness and that we are to walk in the light and shine the light into the darkness.
An overwhelming emphasis on antithesis creates a situation where others are only ever critiqued, not learned from, while we remain blissfully above correction. That’s cultic and it’s Gnosticism, and the Reformed world currently contains a couple of scary examples of exactly this kind of thinking and church life. It’s also not what Calvin talks about in Inst. 1.1 (note the oft forgotten qualification there of `nearly all knowledge.’ Further, modestly acknowledging situatedness does not demand postmodern relativism — I’m a vigorous opponent of postmodern methods in my own discipline of history but spend most of my time when discussing documents in class in setting the cultural context; but to apply notions of antithesis, as fundamentalists often do, makes acknowledgment of context a very difficult thing. It can in fact be used in such a way as to justify a form of Gnostic empiricism and in effect to say `everyone else has tradition, we just have the truth’ is a problem. It could be better translated as `We have a tradition like everyone else, but we’re not going to write it down so that it cannot be critiqued by you or anybody else.’
If you think about this in terms of the Reformed world, I think you get a good sense of the divide that sometimes characterizes us and it is a leftover of the Kuyperian legacy–there are those who stress the “antithesis” and those who stress “common grace.”
Those who stress “common grace” tend to want to engage the culture and seek its transformation. They want to read current novels, watch the current movies, listen to the current music and find continuing echoes of Eden. They want to produce art that reflects honestly the brokenness of the world as well as the possibility of redemption, science that affirms the purposefulness of all creation, history that looks unflinchingly and critically, yet hopefully, at its subjects, politics that seeks proximate love and justice. And they want to do these things as part of God’s work of redemption in this present age, knowing that God’s grace has gone before them in these various spheres.
Those who stress the “antithesis” note that the world has never been a safe place for Christians and the church (Matthew 5:10-12; John 16:33) and that the world itself is passing away (1 Cor 7:33; 1 John 2:17). As a result, they want to name the world as “the world” (to use Stanley Hauerwas’ memorable way of putting it) and only the church in the preaching of the Gospel can do that. They want to take seriously the noetic effects of sin, the continuing reality of the world’s brokenness, the continued influence of the devil in the world, the real temptations of power and influence and their corrupting nature upon the church. Above all, they want to maintain the “holiness” of the church (remember, it is the one holy catholic and apostolic church, they would say) and the purity of the its doctrine (not just peace and unity, but purity of the church is in the PCA ordination vows).