Christianity and Culture – An Overview
How is it possible to gain true insight into man's culture, to be wise about mankind in the immense diversity of his (our) cultural existence?
One thing is certain: to understand man's culture, one must know his history, that is his culture-in-the-process-of-time. Yet then again, how do we achieve a true perspective on man's history? One current popular myth portrays human history as a path of evolution and/or revolution leading from primitive ape-men to a utopian society (Hegel, Darwin, Marx). This is really the great popular myth of modern Western humanism. But it is a grand delusion. Actually, human history and culture can only be genuinely understood when we listen first to God's written revelation, the Bible. And through the Bible we learn that to know man (ourselves) we must know God. To know man and his culture, one must know man-in-relation-to-God and culture as flowing out of this relationship. And through the Bible we learn to know God as Creator, Judge, Redeemer, and Consummator.
In the Bible, we learn first of all that the universe is a Creation, formed by the immeasurably rich mind of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And God created all things good in the beginning (Genesis 1), including the angel who by his rebellion became God's enemy, Satan. From the vast, distant stars down to the smallest insect, God has created all things, and created them good. The world, therefore, cannot but display its createdness. The world has a structure and a meaning. It reflects, even when warped and twisted, the original intelligence and personality of its Creator. Christianity opposes all religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which say that the world is an illusion, or else that it, being material, is inherently unspiritual. No, the material world was created by the Lord God and is thus, originally, good.
But as a result of man's rebellion in the garden of Eden (an actual event!), God cursed man and the world (Genesis 3:14-19). Thorns, cancer, warfare, starvation, earthquakes — all these are the effects of man's Fall. The world now experiences death, dissolution and frustration, suffering and despair (Romans 8:20-22). God has judged the world by subjecting it to death and by allowing evil to proliferate. We live in an originally good world which is now radically flawed by sin and evil. This means that we as Christians may not be optimists, nor may we close our eyes to the reality of evil around and in us, as some religions and philosophies do.
Yet, then, against this backdrop of Creation and Fall, we know that God has in grace taken the initiative to restore the world to wholeness, to Redeem a people for Himself through Jesus Christ. Christ came to bring us back to God, when we were alienated by our sin. He came to pay the penalty for our crime by dying in our place on the cross. Christ rose on that first Easter morning to conquer the forces of death, evil, and Satan, for our sake. And one day Christ will return to complete His work of salvation for His people, the Church.
At the time of the Second Coming, God will Consummate His plan for the universe, by banishing His enemies and by restoring the world to its former harmony, yes even raising the original harmony to a higher pitch of perfection and beauty. Satan and his hosts, including unbelieving men and women, will be punished in an eternal hell (Revelation 20:10). Then God will restore a "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1), where He will reign forever over His wonderful new creation.
I believe that this true story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and consummation sets the framework for all possible discussion about Christianity and culture.
God's Gifts and Culture
To understand what culture is, we must furthermore understand God's gifts to His world.
When God created man, male and female, in His image (Genesis 1:26), He gave Adam and Eve many gifts: language, reasoning ability, capacity to love, physical health, beauty, sexuality, ability to have children, ability to dominate the animals, technological capacity, and so on. As well, the Lord gave many gifts to the earth as man's good and fruitful environment: the water of sea and rivers, the land (earth and minerals) of mountains and plains, the sun for warmth and light, the moon, the stars, vegetation in endless variety, a myriad of animals, and so on. After the Fall, God put a curse of death on man and the world, which means that all these gifts now stand under the sign of God's judgment. Most of the original gifts are now often temporary and fleeting, usually fragile, sometimes wholly absent, and always abused and soiled by man's sin. Nevertheless, God, with an eye to the preservation of the world for redemptive history and a just consummation, continues to pour all kinds of good gifts upon an undeserving world. God continually gives rain, crops for food, and even joy to men all over the world (Acts 14:17). But men are continually ungrateful and rebellious (Romans 1:21).
It seems clear, then, that human society and culture takes place as the interplay between what we may call God's Creation gifts and man's use of these gifts. Even when man is most rebellious and anti-God, he cannot totally eradicate the good quality of these gifts. The Buddhist temple which is used to serve a false religion is often a striking, imaginative structure. The doctor who preserves the health of a dictator is still using medical knowledge about the human body, knowledge which is a gift of God. The prostitute who debases her sexuality may be a startlingly beautiful woman, and all beauty is a gift of God. And we could go on.
When God redeems people, He changes their fundamental orientation. Instead of misusing His gifts, they desire to use these gifts properly. Architecture is transformed when churches are built instead of pagan temples. Medicine is transformed when it accompanies the preaching of the Gospel and helps the poor. Physical beauty is transformed when it adorns sexuality within marriage. And so on.
Yet even here sin is never totally eradicated. Sin still blinds Christians' eyes over and over again. False piety and ignorance may still misuse God's gifts, so that the stamp of pagan culture remains on the Christian's efforts to serve God. Yes, it may even be that pagan cultural products may reflect more of God's gifts than Christian cultural products do. For example, the Buddhist temples in Korea may be aesthetically more satisfying than Christian churches in Korea. Nevertheless, God calls us to use His gifts well and for His glory, to continually work at transforming our cultural materials in order to serve and reflect God's glory and love.
To be culturally aware of and active for the glory of God is not a hobby for a few elite believers. Rather, it is a call that comes to all of God's people since the garden of Eden. God said then, "Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Genesis 1:28). This call to fill and rule over the earth in God's name still applies to us today.
Of course, sin intervened and upset this original "cultural mandate." But in the power of the redemption Christ gives us, we ought in a real sense to take up what Adam and Eve left undone. The command to exercise lordship over the earth is now profoundly complicated by sin, and by the results of the Fall. There is firm resistance to all efforts to express Christ's lordship, His redemptive claims on the world: resistance from Satan, resistance from our own still-sinful hearts, resistance from other Christians, as well as resistance from unbelievers and powerful pagan traditions and institutions. But through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, and by means of the continual illumination of God's Word, the Scripture, we may be assured of God's guidance and help.
The shape of our cultural mandate today is to bring the Good News of the Gospel to bear upon all areas of life. It means to seek to bring all thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), whether that be scientific thought, or political thought, or philosophical thought. Not only all thought, but all human activity ought to be brought into submission to Christ and the Gospel. Family life, business life, recreational life, student life — all of life ought to be brought into the light of redemption and be transformed by it.
We must also realize that this cultural mandate cannot be carried out in an individualistic way. In the first place, the Church (by which I mean the confessing, disciplining, preaching Church brought to life again by the Reformation) is the irreplaceable engine for all Christian culture. Here we gather together as God's people to be fed by God's Word and to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. We are gathered together to celebrate the covenant signs, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. We are gathered together (and this is a visible gathering, one which dynamically seeks worldwide visible expression) to strengthen one another, and to be enriched by one another's gifts. But this ongoing activity of gathering together means that we are then to be sent out into the world of everyday life to be God's lights there.
And in that everyday world of family, business, school, sports, art and music, politics and thought, Christians must labor together. Just as in the Church we can only function as members of one body, with different gifts and talents (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), so outside the Church gathering we must lean on one another for help, wisdom, support, and encouragement. Christian life ought to be an orchestra, where we learn to play in unison and in harmony and with deep dependance upon one another.
Our Current Context
We live in a broken, sinful world, and we ourselves are broken sinners. In the English-speaking world, the Church has been devastated by the naturalistic rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment, with the result that the largest "churches" are rotten with liberalism and indifference to the truth of God's Word. In evangelical circles, an other worldly piety and a rigid anti-intellectualism have effectively blocked possible paths of reformation. We might also mention the soupy emotionalism of 19th-century hymnody, the anti-covenantal individualism of Baptists and Pentecostals, as well as other factors which make our current situation so dark.
Yet God is light; the Lord Jesus Christ is our light; the Scripture floods our world with light; the Reformation Confessions, beautifully summarizing the Scripture, point us continually to the Light. The Church, though sometimes small and despised, is the company of those who know the source and destiny of our universe, for they have been transformed by the light of God's grace. And so, in the midst of brokenness and sin (not least of all our own!), in the face of devastation and darkness, there is hope. Hope for now, and hope for the future. But it is a God-centered hope, a hope which focusses on Christ, and Him crucified and risen; a hope which knows that only through the preaching of the Gospel is there hope for the world, and that only through obedience to God's full Word is there hope for any real transformation of culture.
What, then, in the light of Scripture, are our possible options for cultural involvement?
Option one: isolation and retreat
Monastic communities in the Middle Ages, the Anabaptists in the 16th century, Pietists in the 17th century, Revivalists in the 19th century, and Fundamentalists in the 20th century have all held to a position of isolation and retreat in their societies. They felt that God had told them to live totally apart from the rest of the world around them, and that by living purely, according to the Spirit, without concern for the rest of culture, they were being obedient to God.
These groups, with some notable exceptions, held to a fundamentally pessimistic view of the world. According to them, politics is inherently non-spiritual (except their own intramural politics!). Very often a livid chiliasm (expectation of a 1,000-year reign of Christ) colors their views of world events. The dispensationalists of today say, "Everything is getting worse, just as the Bible says." The result is that there is no point in trying to change society or culture at large. Just try to "save souls," because the world will remain Satanic. So, pay your taxes and let the world go its own way.
Now, admittedly, this is somewhat of a caricature of their attitude. Often spiritual isolationists are so more out of a feeling of powerlessness than out of a theory of culture rejection. Nevertheless, Christians do less than God expects them to do if they neglect to address the fulness of life with the fulness of the Gospel.
There are other groups which are not so extreme, but which still remain theoretically and practically pessimistic about the world. According to them, Christians should only do "spiritual" things like praying and reading the Bible, and leave politics and the rest of life to the non-Christians. For example, much of the Pentecostal or "charismatic" movement generally holds this view. They say, "Become a Christian and receive great blessings." But they never talk about a Christian world view, a Christian political philosophy, a Christian view of art. For, to them, all that is "worldly" and not "spiritual."
So, there are many Christian groups in the world which try to isolate themselves from the world's problems and to retreat from cultural concerns. They retreat from the fulness and complexity of human life by only having church services and prayer meetings. However, although these groups try to isolate themselves from the world, they are in fact already under the influence of a "worldly" dualism about the world: some things are religious (prayer, Bible, sermons) and some things are not religious (politics, philosophy, art).
I believe that isolation and retreat are wrong because the Bible says that God is Lord of all His creation. As Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Prime Minister at the beginning of the 20th century, said: "There is not one square inch of the world to which Christ does not point and say, 'This is mine!'" All the world belongs to God, and as Christians we are called to bring all the world into obedience to Jesus Christ.
Option two: assimilation and capitulation
Christian history is full of examples of Christians being assimilated by their non-Christian surroundings and capitulating to the non-Christian spirit of their age.
The Roman Catholic popes during the Middle Ages, French and English deism in the 18th century, ethical liberalism during the 19th century, the Social Gospel movement in the 20th century — these are all examples of assimilation by and capitulation to anti-Christian forces. The pope became simply another petty dictator in the Middle Ages. The Social Gospel was simply another call for a secular, humanistic, socialistic state.
Most of the movements I describe held to an optimistic (or in some cases opportunistic) view of the world. The world can be improved without conversion to Christ. Salvation from sin and hell is not important (if sin and hell exist at all!). What is important is political power and social influence.
Other groups, while not so extreme, are also trying to assimilate to their non-Christian environments. They no longer hold to the Bible as God's inerrant Word. They no longer believe that Christ is the only way of salvation. They no longer believe that we should preach repentance and faith to all people. The large church "denominations" in America and Europe follow this pattern. Their views of morality, politics, art, philosophy, etc., are taken over from non-Christian scholars and thinkers, whose ideas are primarily secular and humanistic. Though Christian words are still used, these church groups have basically capitulated to the non-Christian spirit of the surrounding culture.
In Korea, for another example, while a position of isolation and retreat is dominant among conservative Christians, among intellectuals and students the tendency is toward assimilation and capitulation to what the humanist thinkers in the West say. Not "What does the Bible say," but "What does that humanist authority say," is most important to Korean students and intellectuals.
I believe that assimilation and capitulation are wrong, because the Bible is God's Word, and through the Bible we realize that we must never compromise with unbelief. If Darwin claims we came into being through the process of chance evolution, then we must say no to Darwin. If Marx says we must foment class struggle and start atheistic societies, then we say no to Marx. If Sartre says that we live in an absurd, God-less world, then we say no to Sartre. For we know that God is the living God and that life has meaning in Christ. Living as Christians means we say no to all forms of unbelief and secular humanism.
Option three: penetration and transformation
In Church history, we note with thanks-giving that we can also see examples of Christians who were able to penetrate and transform their cultures by the Gospel. We see this especially in countries affected by the Calvinistic Reformation.
As is well known, John Calvin (1509-1564) was the dynamic leader of the Reformation in Europe after Martin Luther (1483-1546). Calvin preached, labored, and taught in Geneva, Switzerland, and his influence reached England, Scotland, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and even parts of Russia during his own lifetime, while after his death the Reformed, Presbyterian, and Congregational Churches in the world carried on the Calvinistic tradition.
While Calvin looked upon Luther as the great Apostle of the Reformation, he himself, by his brilliant Bible commentaries, sermons, and especially his work of systematic theology, the Institutes, became the leader of the Reformation movement in Europe.
If Luther rediscovered the Bible's teaching of justification by faith alone, Calvin rediscovered the Bible's teaching of God's sovereignty over the world. "God is Lord, and He is King!" was a Biblical truth which was reapplied to all of life, due to Calvin's influence.
In the Reformed Confessions, including the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), we see that the state government is considered to have a special task of promoting the Gospel and guarding the purity of the Church. We thus see that politics was part of the Reformation's concern. The Calvinistic Reformation wanted to see Biblical Christianity penetrate and transform all of society and all of culture. That is why the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches called upon the government to obey Christ as King.
Another example of penetration and transformation is Abraham Kuyper, who, along with G. Groen van Prinsterer, was the leader of the Reformation movement in The Netherlands in the late 19th century. Kuyper was brought up as a liberal, but was converted to orthodox Christian faith after he became a pastor. After his conversion, Kuyper wrote every week for a Christian newspaper, and he became active in politics, supporting the Anti-Revolutionary Party. The Anti-Revolutionary Party had been started by Groen van Prinsterer in opposition to the secular, humanistic parties such as the Socialists and the Conservatives. Groen van Prinsterer proclaimed: "Against the Revolution (of atheistic socialism), the Gospel!" He meant that the only force strong enough to defeat humanistic socialism was the Gospel of Christ.
Kuyper was the energetic leader of the ARP (Anti-Revolutionary Party) for many years. As well, he founded the Calvinistic "Free University" of Amsterdam, which was "free" of secularist state control. (Unfortunately, this university has now come under the influence of liberalism and modernism, the forces which Kuyper fought so fiercely in his own day.)
Kuyper was used by God to open the eyes of church members to the great calling to bring all thought and all action into obedience to Jesus Christ. Not just on Sunday, but all through the week God calls us to serve Him.
Not only did he work to establish a Christian political party (the ARP), but Kuyper also strove to raise up truly Christian day schools, under the control of the parents, with full support of their own tax money. Furthermore, Kuyper labored mightily to form a united Reformed Church in The Netherlands, committed to full Scriptural authority and thereby to the Reformed Confessions.
Some in our day have criticized Kuyper for his "triumphal" style and approach to life. But, in my opinion, if there was one weakness in Kuyper it was that he was not "triumphal" enough, at times compromising with non-Reformed elements, at times not striving to reach non-Reformed Holland with the Gospel. Yet who can doubt that he was used by God to open the eyes of thousands to the fulness of the Gospel in the fulness of life?
Since the time of Kuyper (he died in 1920), many others have carried on the Groen-Kuyperian tradition of Christian concern for politics and culture. In this way, The Netherlands has been blessed with Reformed Churches which are not afraid to be involved at all levels of society in Christian activity. There are Reformed day schools, from kindergarten up to high school; there are Christian newspapers (daily and weekly), a Christian political party (now called the Reformed Political Union [GPV] ), Christian institutes for social work and teacher training, as well as other forms of Christian organizations. While the Reformed Churches have suffered through the exodus of thousands, due to false teaching, and while there are many weaknesses and sins in their Church life, still the Churches have been blessed by God with a great vision of bringing all of life into obedience to Jesus Christ.
I believe that penetration and transformation are right, because the Bible calls us to penetrate and transform the world with the message of Christ. Christ is the Light, and He desires to illumine all cultures, and to change them, by His Word, the Bible.
The Challenge for Now
If it is true, then, that only option three, penetration and transformation, is the truly Biblical approach to culture, then we must see our own role in the midst of our own cultures.
- First of all, we must be sure of our own commitment to Christ and to the Bible. Have we trusted in Christ, in His atoning work on the cross? Do we really know Him to be our risen Lord? This is crucial, for without genuine faith and a clear understanding of the Christian message, it is sheer folly to try to change our cultures for Christ.
- Secondly, are we members of a true, Biblical Church, one which ardently preaches Christ and the whole message of the Scriptures? This is also crucial, for if the Church is the engine of culture (see above), then we must be properly gathered and nourished before we go out to penetrate and transform. Only in the presence of the covenant proclamation and the covenant signs, including baptism for believers and their children, is there hope for cultural change.
- Thirdly, we must bring our lives under Christ's lordship by using the gifts He has given us for His sake. If culture is the interaction between God's creation gifts and our use of these gifts (see above), then we must reflect upon, develop, and stimulate all our gifts. Within the framework of the true story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation, we are called to respond positively to God's original mandate: fill and subdue the earth for His sake. And in the power of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, that is, transformed by God's redemption, we seek to bring all thought and action into submission to the Lord. Avoiding the temptations of isolation / retreat and assimilation / capitulation, in constant harmony with the preaching and teaching of the Church, we seek to penetrate and transform our cultures for Christ's sake.
We began this paper by reflecting on the meaning of human culture. We end it by giving a challenge to commitment and by pointing the way to true cultural development. But, of course, this is the natural Christian path: from understanding to action.