Notice I put that headline in quotation marks. That means two things. First, I didn’t say it; Greg Forster did, in his book Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Second I may not agree with it; quotations marks around a headline often say, “Hey, we’re not necessarily agreeing with this, just quoting it.”

These qualifications out of the way, what is “the greatest failing of the American church today?” Greg Forster says it’s “the failure of the American church to affirm the goodness of civilizational life” (p. 89). Quite a surprising claim isn’t it?

The context for this remarkable assertion is Greg’s passion for sound cultural engagement which, he says, integrates two things:

First, we must begin with affirmation of the God-given goodness of civilizational activity. Second, the special transformation of our hearts by the Spirit must flow into our civilizational activity, so that we stand against all that is sinful and wrong in the world and pursue a more excellent way. We must integrate these two commissions into a single, unified civilizational life that expresses the joy of God. (88)

Affirmation of our civilization is first and fundamental “for the simple reason that creation comes before fall…Christians say good is primary and evil is parasitic.” Thus Greg concludes, “when we approach civilization, we must always be careful to keep the affirmation of the good in the primary position and let transformation of the bad follow.”

Do you see why I said yesterday that this might make some VanTillians’ hair fall out? Van Til and his followers, (including some of them in the nouthetic/biblical counseling field) start out with antithesis rather than affirmation. They begin by highlighting the evil in the world, the fallenness in the world, the enmity in the world. The world is bad, bad, bad, etc. Slash and burn, fight and critique, expose and ridicule, and so on.

Then, when they’ve wasted the field and strangled every last breath out of any “worldly” thing or idea, they quietly creep back onto the battlefield and start breathing some life back into the massacred corpses via the doctrine of common grace. ANTITHESIS is upfront in big, bold, capital letters. Affirmation is whispered in small (and often contradictory) print (that hopefully no one notices).

It’s always struck me as an extremely strange way to try and win an argument or win people over to your side.

Affirmation First
Greg Forster insists that, without affirming everything or toning down our opposition to things that are sinful, we should should put AFFIRMATION up front in big, bold capital letters, and that prioritizing it rather than antithesis “will actually help us bear witness more powerfully against sin, strengthening and empowering our transformative impact.” He present five reasons for this (p. 89):

1. Within a framework of affirmation for the good our opposition to the bad will be more accurate. I agree with Greg that when we pretend that evil is primary when it’s not, we will end up saying things that are not true, the world will notice, and we’ll lose credibility.

2. Affirmation of the good will also make our opposition to the bad more meaningful. You have to start with the good to help people feel the badness of evil.

3. It will make our opposition more graceful. This is what’s baffled me most about Van Tillian apologetics and the way it’s been applied in some nouthetic/biblical counseling. I would have thought that counselors of all people would grasp the basic human psychology of keeping opposition within a framework of affirmation, indicating a desire to build up our neighbours rather than look down and tear down.

4. It will allow us to criticize aspects of our civilization as members of it, rather than as outsiders. “If we don’t place ourselves within American civilization before we criticize it, we’re just busybodies. sticking our noses into other people’s societies.”

5. It will make our opposition more effective. #1-4 will make our opposition more accurate, meaningful, graceful, integral, and therefore more effective in pushing back evil.

A Great Failure (But Not The Greatest Failure)
I don’t agree with Greg that “the failure of the American church to affirm the goodness of civilizational life is our greatest failing today.” That’s overstating a good case. I do agree with him that it’s a great failure, even a very great failure. And I also agree with him on the need to prioritize affirmation for all five reasons that he gives.

That’s going to give many of us painful whiplash, because we’ve been barreling down the antithesis road for so long. But where’s it got us? And where’s it taking us? Isn’t it worth at least considering if we’ve got this wrong and if it’s worth trying another road or direction?

Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It by Greg Forster.

  • Dale Kleinheksel

    How do you use this concept in sharing the gospel? I have been taught that people need to hear the bad news before they can appreciate the “Good News”.

  • Faith Announcer

    Thanks all for their nice, informative and really
    excellent comments. But today I want to say about religious faith. We some have
    strong religious faith on the other hand someone has no faith at all. Is there
    any way to measurement the depth of religious faith? I was always confused
    about the depth and power of my faith on my religion. But today it is clear to me
    some days ago I got a nice application which is able to measure the religious
    faith. It is really funny too. I like to share this with all to you. I think
    you all will also get a lot of fun and will be astonished too.

    This Faith Announcer Application is used to Announce
    Religion Faith.

  • Kevin7Stevenson .


    First, allow me to apologize on behalf of any Van Tillians that may press the
    antithesis in the manner in which you present it here. That may represent a
    misunderstanding of presuppositionalism applied, or an overzealous approach of
    an immature understanding of this particular approach, but it isn’t what Van
    Til promoted. In fact, a closest brother and Van Tillian pastor-apologist I
    know summarizes consistent presuppositionalism as “Affirm the good; correct the bad, and present the gospel!” I’ve always found that both faithful and fruitful.

    Second,I would just mention that both the Van Tillian apologetic and Foster’s
    culture-affirming approach were both conceived in the same womb of Kuyperian
    thought (if I understand Foster correctly).

    Thirdly,I would just remind the reader of precisely when and where Van Til and his
    purist prodigies emphasized pressing the antithesis. Van Til stressed and
    over-stressed that the antithesis is not on the metaphysical levels and point
    of contact, which is suggestive in some of your remarks above; rather, the
    antithesis is at the point of the respective epistemological authorities of the
    Christian and non-Christian, the self-attesting Christ speaking through
    scripture for the former and autonomous human reason for the latter. If Foster
    is suggesting that we should—against the Van Tillian thesis—AFFIRM human
    autonomy, and I highly doubt this, then I’d say your review was entirely too

    These observations notwithstanding, thank you for your review. It led to at least one additional book sale for Foster.

    Grace and peace,

    Kevin Stevenson

    • David Murray

      Thanks for your input Kevin. I take your point about misunderstanding of misapplication of Van Til’s insights. I love the “Affirm the good, correct the bad…” summary. Have never heard that before but it jives with Forster’s approach. I’d be really grateful if you could point me to somewhere in Van Til’s writings where I can read more about this.

      Your third point get’s to the nub of the issue, I believe. I think there are many people who read Van Til but don’t make that distinction, or else they do but they don’t think it’s as important to stress the point of contact/overlap and therefore all people hear is the antithesis/contrast.

  • Pingback: “The Greatest Failing Of The American Church Today”

  • Pingback: 14 Sobering Reminders When Confronting Sin