A significant part of the process of recovering and applying classical Reformed theology to our contemporary situation (sometimes called ressourcement, a French word which refers to getting back to original sources) is recovering the distinctions that we lost in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a number of these, e.g., the archetypal/ectypal distinction, which, in Recovering the Reformed Confession, I called the categorical distinction; the distinction between law and gospel, which, in the classical period of Reformed theology (i.e., the 16th and 17th), was received as basic. Another lost distinction is that between the sacred and the secular. This is a distinction that our classical writers employed regularly but one that is regarded with suspicion today. In this discussion, sacred refers to that which is specially devoted to God. Think of the way Leviticus speaks of that which is dedicated to God or holy. Secular, in this context, refers to that which is common to Christians and pagans alike, which is not dedicated to God or holy in that sense. It does not mean “unclean” or defiled but simply not specially set apart. Think of the difference between the loaf of bread in your kitchen and the bread that has been consecrated for use in the Lord’s Supper. We often say during the administration of the Supper, “this sacred meal.” That there are secular meals is necessarily implied. Your family dinner is such a meal but it is not dirty or corrupt.
Recovering The Distinction Between Sacred And Secular
The traditional Christian (and Reformed) distinction is regarded with suspicion by some because it is unfamiliar. It is also, as a recent correspondent wrote to me, regarded by some as a Roman Catholic distinction. Some have been taught that the sacred belongs to God and the secular belongs to the Devil. That would be Manichaeism (i.e., the theology behind the Star Wars films). Others have been taught (directly or indirectly) by the followers of Abraham Kuyper that any distinction between the sacred and the secular somehow removes the sovereignty of God.
Neither of these was true in the classical period of Reformed theology and they are not true now. The Protestants saw the secular and the sacred as two distinct spheres over which and through which God exercises his sovereign providence.
Calvin used “secular” as a category without prejudice regularly. E.g. in Institutes 1.8.2, he contrasted the different styles between the human authors of sacred Scripture and “secular” writers. We see the same usage in 1.8.6. Calvin regularly wrote of secular judges, secular philosophers, secular work. E.g. in 4.7.22 he contrasted the properly sacred work of ministry with Gregory I’s complaint that he was forced to be too occupied with “secular affairs.” This way of thinking, speaking, and writing was universal among the magisterial Protestant Reformers and the Protestant orthodox.
We should not confuse the category secular with the use of “secular humanism” and “secularism” as pejoratives. Just as there is a difference between science and scientism so there is a proper distinction between things that are secular and a philosophy of secularism.
One way to think about the distinction between the sacred and the secular is to consider the restriction that the Apostle Paul placed on us in 1 Corinthians 10:14–21. The problem facing the Corinthian church was what to do about sharing meals with pagans. Paul’s rule was that so long as the meal was a secular meal there was no problem, even though, in the kitchen the meal had been dedicated to the gods. The moment, however, the pagan host announced that the meal had been dedicated to the gods, then it was now a sacred or a religious meal. Christians may not share in that meal. We have a sacred feast. It is called the Lord’s Supper and pagans are forbidden from it.
It would be extraordinarily helpful for us to recover this distinction. It would prevent us from painting ourselves into intellectual and rhetorical corners such as when Christians talk about “Christian plumbing” or “Christian softball.” Had we not lost the category of secular, which is a corollary for another traditional Reformed category, nature, we would not have made such mistakes. We would have known that neither plumbing nor softball need to be “redeemed.” God never lost them and he did not need to buy them back. He was sovereign over them all the time and he ordained them in his general providence. Softballs do what they do because, in the providence of God, he has ordained the laws of physics. There is a Christian interpretation of the significance of softball but there is only one way to play softball: according to the rules. Christians have no unique insight into softball or plumbing.
Changing Church Names
Church names are an interesting instance of confusion of the sacred and the secular. Five years ago I complained about trendy church names. I want to amend that complaint.
It is not that I was wrong. Evangelicals have adopted a lot of tacky, trendy church The church names. Some of them are so trendy that they have have changed since I last wrote about it.
The problem, however, is deeper than I realized in 2017. What I realize now is that what is happening with church names a confusion of the sacred and the secular.
For several decades now, partly under the influence of Pietism and partly under the influence of neo-Kuyperianism, evangelicals have been been on a quest for a distinctly Christian “worldview,” or Weltanaschauung (a nineteenth-century term from German philosophy). Professors at Christian colleges are required to explain to their supervisors how they will “integrate” their faith with their academic discipline. The underlying assumption, which is not always stated, is that there is a distinctly Christian way to do history or biology, etc. This assumption is easier to claim than it is demonstrate.
One outcome of this quest for integration has been to deny the distinction between the sacred and the secular. Typically, under this regime, everything the Christian does is supposed to be “redeemed” and “put under” Christ’s Lordship. In traditional terms, everything is now supposed to be, to the Christian, sacred.
Under the traditional Reformed understanding, plumbing would be secular and a church name would be sacred, symbolized by some traditional Christian or biblical allusion. Churches were named after biblical figures (e.g., our Lord himself, the Apostles), or some historic Christian figure. Sometimes churches would be given geographic designations (e.g., Westminster, Great Minster, Eastminster etc). Later churches chose denominational names (e.g., First Methodist).
In recent years, however, the trend among evangelicals has been to choose ambiguous place names that might, to insiders, have a double sense. E.g., “City Light” “Radiant,” “Cross the Line,” “Northern Lighthouse,” “Connecting Pointe” “Crossroads Church,” “Mercy City,” “Elevate,” “Room 211,” “Two Pillars Church” are just some examples from Lincoln, Nebraska. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of the churches in Lincoln still have traditional names but it is worth noting the trend.
There is nothing sacred or distinctly Christian about “City Light.” “Radiant” might be a cosmetic company. “Cross the Line,” about which I complained in 2017 sounds like a dare more than a church. I think of Room 211 as a potential medical appointment. “Elevate” might be a gym and anything adding an e to point is just annoying. “Elevate” could be a self-help seminar.
The names are meant to be clever but the use of intentionally secular terms to name the pre-eminently sacred institution, the embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven, the church, the gathering of the Christ-confessing covenant community seems perverse.
Surely the major motive here is to make the church seem accessible to the lost or to the unchurched. I do not know that people are consciously choosing secular terms to denominate Christian churches but I am struck by the growing frequency of variants of “Bridge” in church names. It would be one thing were a church located near a notable bridge but mostly the word is used metaphorically. It is an extension of the seeker-oriented model of church.
Recovering the distinction between sacred and secular will not solve all our problems but, like its analogue, the nature/grace distinction (not dualism), the sacred/secular distinction is an important tool as we continue to learn how to navigate a post-Christian culture.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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