Honorable Conduct in the “Negative World”

In reading Ben Crenshaw’s response to my opinion piece at First Things, several points came to mind. Much could be said but here are two brief thoughts.

It is indeed possible that I have misunderstood the “negative world” idea, but perhaps not in quite the way Crenshaw claims. When I encountered it in Aaron Renn’s First Things essay, it struck me as providing a potentially useful taxonomy for highlighting some of the dramatic changes of the last twenty years in America with regard to the cultural climate and religion. But as Crenshaw deploys it, it seems less a modest heuristic tool and more part of a grand theory of culture. This can then apparently function as a Procrustean bed for categorizing and dismissing other arguments a priori. Now, Crenshaw’s reading of the idea may well be correct, in which case I find it considerably less helpful than I first did. In retrospect, therefore, I would not have bothered referencing it. The problem with grand theories is that they risk simplifying the complexities of real life as it is lived at ground level.

More worrying than its capacity for over-simplification, however, is that the “negative world” now appears to have become a justification (excuse?) for ignoring basic New Testament teaching on Christian behavior—whether one is politically active or not. Crenshaw’s lack of serious engagement with the Bible is surprising, given the issue is that of the nature of Christianity and Christian political ethics. True, he does point to Rahab and gestures toward the New Testament by citing Hebrews 11:31. But to make her behavior normative for Christians today in our current circumstances is not a straightforward move. This is not to say there are no situations where Christians may be called on to act similarly, but it is quite simply no easy task to reach such a judgment. There is also an important redemptive historical context that is key to understanding the significance of both the events recorded in Joshua and the reference in Hebrews.

More to the point, there are many obvious New Testament concepts and passages that present themselves as unequivocally normative for Christian believers and that are far less tricky to interpret than Rahab and Hebrews 11. This is not to say, of course, that the Old Testament should not inform Christian ethics or politics. It is simply to make the basic hermeneutical point that we should interpret Scripture’s more opaque passages in light of its clearer ones. What of Paul’s cross-centered philosophy of ministry and discipleship as laid out in his Corinthian correspondence? The implications of Pauline Christology for Christian behavior? The requirement that elders should be of good reputation with outsiders? What about 1 Peter? The Sermon on the Mount? The list goes on. Perhaps Crenshaw thinks Biden’s America is more of a “negative world” than Nero’s Rome and that the New Testament’s normative expectations of Christian behavior therefore do not apply. Or perhaps he thinks New Testament ethical teaching represents a kind of slave morality in our current political moment. If so, QED.

The conclusion of Crenshaw’s article is, however, admirably clear as it really does put on display the kind of “Christianity” being espoused. Let me quote, lest I be accused of misrepresentation:

Politically-active American Christians who defy the enemies of God and wage war against evil, and who necessarily employ crude memes, subterfuge, and even deception toward these ends, will likewise be commended for their faith. Trueman’s faith is too small and anemic for the political, but that does not make us Nietzscheans.

And there it is. Crudity, duplicity and even dishonesty all justified because Crenshaw has decided that America in 2024 is analogous to Jericho in redemptive history and worse than first-century Rome. That paragraph needs to be marked, pondered, and remembered. It is a transvaluation of Christian values if ever there was one.

Saint Peter had a different view. Here are a few verses from 1 Peter 2, where he is talking about how Christians are to relate to the pagan world around them—the pagan world that, tradition has it, was so “negative” it martyred him:

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander….Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation…. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

What a pity that the apostle had “too small and anemic a faith” to understand what he was up against. No wonder they crucified him.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is a member of the Davenant Institute Board of Directors.


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