Nature, Grace, And Film

I love a good film. I took three courses in film criticism as an undergraduate. They were more difficult than one might think. First, taking notes in the dark is challenging and reading them afterward is even more difficult. Second, I had to watch a lot of hard-to-watch films, which I would not recommend. Still, I got to watch a number of great films and got to learn a bit about how films are written, shot, and edited. I learned that the really great thing about Citizen Kane is not the banal script or even Orson Welles (1915–85)—the best performance in the film is Joseph Cotton’s—but the cinematography of Gregg Toland (1904–48). The opening shot amazes me still, even after CGI, etc. By the way, the best way to experience Orson Welles is to listen to him. If you enjoy podcasts go to archive.org and search for “Orson Welles old time radio.”

There is an approach to film criticism popular among evangelicals that seeks to find some aspect of a film, e.g., a theme, a story arc, or a character that somehow connects to the Christian faith. This is a mistake driven by a confusion over nature and grace. Evangelicals have long had trouble with the category of nature. For the most part they do not have that category in their intellectual toolbox. Things are thought to be valuable only insofar as they relate to grace (e.g., the new life).

When I became a Christian in the mid-70s, one of the fist things I learned informally, from other Christians, was that once a Christian has been redeemed he should no longer be interested even in the ordinary things that interested him when he was a pagan. Thus, an interest in sports must be replaced by an interest in what they called “spiritual things.” What they were saying is that Christians need to abandon nature for grace.

The Three Ways Of Relating Nature And Grace

My new evangelical friends did not realize it but they were repeating an Anabaptist way of thinking about nature (creation) and grace (e.g., redemption). There are broadly three ways of relating nature and grace. The Anabaptist view is, as the Reformed complained, that “grace destroys nature.” The way I explain it to my students is to say that, in the Anabaptist view (which has greatly influenced American evangelicalism since 1800), grace obliterates (i.e., paints over) nature. They think this way because they have an over-realized eschatology, they expect too much of heaven and the future state now. This over-realized eschatology is a leaven throughout their theology. It leavens their theology, their ecclesiology, their view of the sacraments, their ethics, and their rejection of nature as a category of thought. In the Anabaptist/evangelical system, nature is thought mainly in terms of fallen nature and thus there is a quasi-Manichaean quality to the way they relate nature and grace.

The Medieval view tended to be, as Thomas (e.g., ST, 1a 62.5, resp.) wrote, that “grace perfects nature.” The Reformed used this rhetoric but modified it a bit. Most of the Reformed did not think that grace perfects nature per se but they did think and say that grace does renew (and in that sense perfect) redeemed persons. According to most of the Reformed, most of the time, as the Heidelberg Catechism says “we were created in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know our Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness.” There is nothing in that answer about concupiscence before the fall. As Robert Rollock (1555–99) wrote, life was promised to Adam before the fall “under condition of works done by strength and nature.” Other Reformed writers, e.g., Ursinus, wrote in ways that emphasized the necessity of divine help even before the fall.

Still, however the classic Reformed writers came out on the question of grace before the fall, they all had a category of nature and thus we simply do not see them writing about “redeeming” this or that cultural enterprise. They knew the difference between belief and unbelief, between Christianity and paganism, but our best writers (e.g., Calvin, Vermigli, and the Reformed orthodox) were well read in the classics (in the original languages) and appreciated the great pagan writers as writers and thinkers. One does not often find the Reformers or their orthodox successors touting the virtues of a pagan writer because that writer anticipated a Christian doctrine or theme. Zwingli might be an exception here but for the most part they appreciated pagan writers because they were good and important thinkers or good writers.

Nature And Film

They were able to do that because they had a category of analysis for nature. They did not agree with the Anabaptists (and they said so explicitly) that grace destroys nature. Under the category of nature one asks, what is the nature of good communication? What is the nature of eloquence and beauty? What sort of writing is compelling? What sort of writing informs, delights, moves, or even enraptures (to paraphrase a passage from Calvin’s Institutes, 1.8.2; Battles edition)?

When we think about film we should ask, “is this a good piece of filmmaking? What is the nature of film? What makes a good film (e.g., screen writing, cinematography, directing, editing, acting etc)? These are the sorts of questions that Christian film critics ought to be asking and answering about film rather than, “does this film have a redemptive story arc or some analogy of the gospel?” If those things were intentionally woven into the film, it would be entirely fair to observe and comment on them, but one gets the sense that for some evangelicals those things (nature) are less important when evaluating a film than “the message” or some discovered redemptive aspect.

As the mainstream of the Western Christian tradition has understood nature and grace, the latter does not wipe out the former. Nature is still a thing. There are natural patterns that we can observe. There are qualities that mark good writing, e.g., word choice, meter, sentence structure, important ideas. There are qualities that mark a good film. These are the things for which Christians, be they critics or not, should look when watching a film.

The broader issue here, of course, is the existence of these two intellectual categories (nature and grace) and their relation to one another. Were evangelicals to embrace nature (creation) as a category, their critique of contemporary cinema would be richer, more interesting, and more enlightening.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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22 comments

  1. Hello Dr Clark. Have you watched ‘The Tree of Life’ from director Terrance Mallick? It is a beautiful film that touches on nature and grace. Also I recommend his latest film ‘A Hidden Life ‘ also.

  2. Hello Dr Clark. Have you seen the film ‘The Tree of Life’ from director Terrance Mallick? It deals with nature and grace and is just a beautiful film. Also I recommend his latest film ‘ A Hidden Life ‘ which is also excellent.

  3. How about the role Welles played in “The Long, Hot Summer”? I always thought that he did a great job of adopting the Southern accent as well as his acting the overbearing character Will Varner.

  4. I second the support of Terrence Malick’s films!

    One question I would have, Dr. Clark, especially with the rise of anti-Christian views in pop culture, is the relevance of WLC #139, which forbids theater and the stage. On the continental side, see the relative resistance to owning a television set in many Dutch Reformed households through the twentieth century.

    Having been raised in pietist traditions, I certainly recognize the Anabaptist tendencies in the ways I was brought up. But as Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, and so many streaming services (not to mention problems with tech on social media and smartphones) increasingly give way to the spirit of the age, might modern Christians benefit from a more dim view of film? Not an absolute rejection of nature *of* filme, but that in living by grace we see how much of the content *in* film is the fruit of the flesh?

    • Brian,

      WLC 139 says:

      Q. 139. What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?
      A. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.

      Does it flatly forbid all theater or stage plays? I doubt it. Theodore Beza wrote a play based on the life of Abraham, (Abraham Sacrificiant), which was translated into English and performed on the London stage. Beza was a significant influence on the Westminster Divines. What is forbidden is “lacivious songs etc” not all songs etc.

      Should Christians stay away from lascivious plays/flims/theater? Probably. Some things cannot be unseen at least for a long time. I do sometimes sympathize with the old Christian Reformed ethos re “the silver screen.” Yet I also remember that early cinema in America was unregulated, like the internet today, and the first films were pornography was raw as anything that can be found on the web today.

      Thus, we shouldn’t condemn the medium but we must use wisdom and discretion, two categories which get overlooked in those traditions with an over-realized eschatology.

      As a corollary to my extortion for Christians to get involved in politics so they should be making good films. I didn’t say good Christian films. I said good films.

  5. Dr Clark,

    On the one hand, you state that wlc 139 forbids lascivious songs and stage plays.
    On the other hand, you ask the question and give the answer: “Should Christians stay away from lascivious plays/flims/theater? Probably.”

    In light of wlc 139, shouldn’t the answer to the above question be: “certainly”, rather than “probably”?

    • Theo,

      If no one sees the film how does anyone know that it’s lascivious? Even if we had ecclesiastical censors, they would have to see the film to determine if it’s lascivious. We would also have to develop an agreed definition of what constitutes a lascivious film.

      I used “probably” because I imagine that there are circumstances that, while I was writing the comment, I couldn’t anticipate. I’ve had to read and watch things that I might not wanted to have read/watched in order to comment on them or to talk about them with other people. I imagine that was true of the divines. They were not hermetically sealed from their own time.

      They were also reacting very strongly to a war-time outbreak of antinomianism (and to a fear of antinomianism). Remember too, they were writing on behalf of the state and in service of the state, toward what they hoped would be a unified national church. We should remember that aspect of their work too. It doesn’t mean that the divines were wrong but it gives us context for understanding them. E.g., few of us will ever have to do anything with members keeping a house of prostitution (“stews”).

  6. Did you read Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self? Salvador Dali was a superb painter, but the stated goal of surrealism was a frontal assault on Christianity. So, it is insufficient for a Christian art critic to simply ask: “Is this a high quality piece of work?” Sure, that’s a question to ask, but there are other important ones too. After all, nature is not amoral.

    • David,

      Did I say or imply that quality is the only question? No, I did not. Is some art immoral? Yes. Lena Riefenstahl was arguably, technically, a great film maker but no one committed to a Judeo-Christian ethic could affirm the morality of her films.

      The point of the essay, which you apparently missed, is that evangelicals tend to justify film solely on the basis of their alleged (often invented) “redemptive” content.

      This approach neglects an essential category, nature.

      Is there more to say? Yes but a disciplined essay doesn’t try to say everything in a single piece.

  7. My two cents: it has been a preoccupation of fundamentalist types for generations (read, people like Bob Jones, Sr.—of which several sermons are extant on YouTube) to caterwaul about things in the culture (of which artistic output is downstream) that are the usual culprits—to a very fine point. Even seeing women smoking cigarettes in New York hotel bars—which I heard him rant about in a sermon dated 1955. My own parents confiscated a huge stack of collected MAD magazines from me…to my bewilderment…roughly 40 yrs. ago—upon the urging of our pastor.
    Now that evangelicalism, broadly speaking, has become inured to obscenities in sight and speech in the movies, comedy routines, etc., the bar for many for acceptability/condemnation—as you say—has become the rhetorical question, it it redeeming?
    The more concerning question re: the sphere of the arts is its relationship to statism and the advancement of false ideologies which destroy entire cultures. And, funding of same—through unrighteous tax dollars. I don’t get a single email from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, etc., etc., that doesn’t virtue signal towards a thoroughgoing CRT or DEI type agenda. Or, the COVID vaccine cult—which, through the power of the State, restricts the non-vaccinated from attending events. STILL. And next season is shaping up to be no different—so that leaves me out for at least another year.
    A Christian can play Beethoven with no more adeptness than can a non-Christian. Grand opera is sung very well by the neo-pagans of our day. But the secular must be rescued, if possible, from the secularISTS, and secularISM. This will not be done by obsessing over cuss words or bare breasts in the movies. Decadence is more than this, and to maintain the generational fundamentalist/evangelical working assumptions is kiddie-pool Christianity. Many Christians don’t either value “the arts” or, they see it as a secular enterprise. That is fine, and that is their business. But make no mistake: in the hands of secularISM, the arts—and what they advance as handmaidens of the State—become EVERYONE’s business.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks. No, I didn’t miss your point. I’ve just come to realize that there’s a great temptation for Christians in intellectual and especially academic circles to love and excuse the products of pop culture. Trueman is certainly not immune from that himself, but his book has forcefully brought it home to me that pop culture has been perhaps the primary weapon whereby the thought of Marx and Freud have been diffused to the masses, resulting in many of the cultural ills we now face such as the celebration of sexual deviancy. For this reason I’ve come to prefer the banal evangelical methodology you’re critiquing to an approach focusing on aesthetics alone (to the extent that an unequivocal response to the question as to whether Christians should view lascivious material can’t be given).

    • David,

      Okay. You ignored my point and then complained that I wrote the wrong essay.

      Evangelicals (and Reformed postmils et al) with an over-realized eschatology need to get to grips with the existence of nature as a category. Ironically I find myself having similar debates with both groups.

      The pre-mil evangelicals don’t have a category for nature and the theonomic/theocratic postmil types don’t like nature (e.g., natural law–typically they sound like Barthians on natural law. The reaction cracks me up when I tell a theonomist he’s a Barthian). It’s too subjective for them. They don’t understand that nature is an objective reality instituted by God and it’s an important category in the in-between time.

      As to Carl’s book, yes, I read it before it was published and I interviewed him after it came out.

      Office Hours: Carl Trueman Explains Why The World Seems So Upside Down

      I’ve also been linking to Bob Godfrey’s series, e.g.,

      What’s Going on Right Now? Sex, Race, Politics, & Power w/ Dr. W. Robert Godfrey (14)

  9. Yes, I agree. 25 years ago, when I was more naive and the world wasn’t quite what it is today, I might have been harder to convince. This IS the European model—where in a place like Vienna, opera singers (e.g., at the State Opera) are a type of civil servant—not unlike a postal worker. And, they get pensions, too. Of course, this is a carry over from the patronage of princely courts—which treated people the likes of Mozart as “entertainer” for the elite of courts—not unlike “cultural/political” or “coastal” elites of today—who know very little about things, but consider arts patronage the “elite” thing to do, or a place to park their millions—which itself involves entanglements with an unrighteous, progressivist tax schema.
    I’d add sports stadiums and any hundred other entities—but then again, I’m for choking the life out of the State in general—save for what it costs to maintain its rigid constitutional functions. But I imagine this is obvious, by now.
    I would like to add to the comment regarding Dali—and your remark about a well-disciplined essay. Yes, I agree with both of you. But it is worth reminding Christians who may not consider it: cosmic statements ARE being made by artists and artistic products, and there are egregious examples (Wilde, Wagner, etc.) and when you consider their relationship to the State—esp. Wagner, who helped to virtually bankrupt the Munich court of Ludwig II, only to be appropriated (I would say MIS appropriated by the Third Reich, later) then my point is driven home more firmly. Sometimes, explicit religious statements are made—perhaps unwittingly so—in works which are very self-consciously spiritual/mystical, ex., Wagner’s late “Christian” opera “Parsifal”. As pure art, these things are beautiful, moving, even exquisite. But as a Christian, it behooves me to know what Wagner might be up to, and I have to know that as much as Arthurian legend is at play, so is the spirit of Schopenhauer.
    I think what I want to say is that even when things are “secular”, statements of cosmic importance are being made and while Christian may enjoy them as pure art, we are to also be as wise as serpents.
    The decadence of Huysmans is perfumed and beguiling as literature, but the obscenity of the works might not fit a standardized definition of “red flags” for Christian. Where you have decadent art, you have a decadent State—which sees itself as God walking on Earth. Help choke the life out of IT, and you’ve done a generous thing for BOTH secular and sacred spheres. My admonition to Christians is to drop the priggish moralism—although I understand that things jar their sensibilities—and let’s get down to brass tacks for their once. The hour is very late.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you so much for your interaction, and wise handling of WLC 139. Like Theo K, when I first read your “Probably” remark, I was surprised. But as you pointed out, the subjective determinations of what is “lascivious” for various ages, maturity levels, contexts, etc., makes your remarks commendable.

    I REALLY appreciate your analysis of nature here. Thanks!

  11. I think there are more important issues concerning films and the Christian Life. So, even though somewhat off topic, I will add the following comment.

    There are polls among seminary students that indicate many of them are addicted to pornography. If that’s true, what does it say about the next generation of pastors? And what does it say about how Christians should deal with lascivious films?

    Concerning what constitutes a lascivious film, even secular people discern them when they see them, that’s why there are different ratings. To be clear, the sad truth about modern films is that most of them fall into this category.

    Concerning spiritual maturity, I would expect the more mature a Christian is, the more sensitive his conscience would be against such filth.

    • Theo,

      I agree that sem students are not immune from the plague of pornography. It’s a serious issue generally and especially for young men raised with the internet.

      Pornographic material is obviously lewd, lascivious, and prurient. It lacks any artistic intent or merit. It obviously violates the moral law of God as it portrays persons and sexual behavior for the purpose of stimulating sinful impulses (and for commercial reasons).

      When you say, “even secular people discern them,” I take it that you’re using secular to signal unbelieving. Perhaps. Let’s do our own work.

      The adjective lascivious is derived from the late Latin adj. lasciviosus meaning “lustful” or “licentious.” It was taken over into English in the 15th and 16th centuries to communicate the same range of ideas. It is used synonymously in 1513 with “wanton.” Shakespeare used it in “All’s Well That Ends Well” (1616; 4.3.225) and thus seems relevant to the discussion of the divines’ intent. “I knew the young Count to be a dangerous and lasciuious [sp] boy.” (All this comes from the OED by the way). In 1660 it was used in the context of being able to see someone’s skin: “Their garments are something lascivious, for being cut and open their skin is seen.”

      I really don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you think to determine exactly what is “lascivious.” We don’t live in the 17th century. Women work in professional positions. They are police officers, physicians, soldiers, sailors, and marines. They aren’t covered to the neck. By the standards of the 17th century virtually every woman and most men are “lascivious” nearly constantly.

      Thus, I come back to my idea, someone has to see films. Obviously pornographic films and perhaps films rated to be adjacent to them may be ruled out a priori (but why are we letting pagans decide for us or who sets the ratings? May we assume that they are pagans? Perhaps they are but perhaps they aren’t) as beyond the pale.

      That still leaves the vast majority of films to be sorted through. What about all “R” films? Well, some are R for violence and some for nudity and sexual content. Perhaps the all latter are forbidden?

      Or perhaps we teach people the moral law of God and teach them to be wise and to honor God’s Word? Yes we ought to be careful what we see, what we admit to our minds and memories but it is also true that it is not what goes into a man that defiles but what comes out of him. It is also possible to become Pharisaical. The old fundamentalist stricture about films was well intended but it forbad films indiscriminately and thus made the ban seem silly and thoughtless.

      Here I think intent is an important category. When does a romantic scene become a sexually prurient or lascivious (lust-inciting) scene? That may well depend upon who is watching the film.

      If film troubles a Christian and if he/she is easily tempted or affected by visual images, then such a Christian ought to be wise and avoid visual media on analogy with those weaker brothers who could not eat meat that had been offered to idols without being tempted to go back to paganism. We should not show or watch visual media in the presence of a weaker brother or sister. If a person struggles with pornography he/she ought to especially careful what goes through the eyes to the heart, mind, & memory.

      As to maturity, I agree that as we grow we become more sensitive to sin and to holiness but I’ve known very mature Christians who took what might be termed a more permissive approach to film than I would.

      Film seems to be a classic place for the doctrine of Christian liberty. Paul did not say, “that meat was offered to idols, therefore never eat it.” All the meat was offered to idols but some Christians could eat without stumbling and others couldn’t. What he called us to was to bear with one another and to love one another even as we took different approaches to the same question.

  12. If the polls are correct, this is a far more serious issue. If 50% of pastors regularly watch pornography, then quite frankly, 50% of “pastors” are unfit for the ministry. And, barring a miraculous intervention of God, the next generation will be even worse.

    “is not what goes into a man that defiles but what comes out of him”. This is where I strongly disagree. This verse cannot be applied to films etc. It is impossible for the mind and soul to remain unaffected/unpolluted by what a person hears and sees. As the programmers say, garbage in garbage out.

    Yes, legalism is always a danger. So is the tendency we all have to justify our sinful patterns.

    Spiritual maturity seeks what is spiritually beneficial. It doesn’t try to come as close to sin as possible.

    Think of the following scenario: God works a miracle in the hearts of Western Christians (it would take a miracle to wean us off of media consumption), and they voluntarily decide to abstain from all sorts of media for the next 2 years. How would that affect the health of the church?

    • Hi Theo: So what is your list of things we shouldn’t do? We have God’s Law but what you are proposing appears to be more broad. You said “Yes, legalism is always a danger.” What you propose sounds exactly like legalism.

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