The Crisis Of The Hour: Christ And Culture

There may be no more pressing issue before Christians (as individuals) and the visible church (as a corporate body) than the question of Christ and culture. Much of what concerns us all just now goes back, in one way or another, to the question of how to relate Christ to culture. In his 1951 classic, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr identified three models for relating Christ to culture:

  1. Christ against culture
  2. Christ of culture
  3. Christ above culture

For the first Niebuhr thought about the third-century Latin father, Tertullian, who famously wrote, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” For the second, we might think of those theological liberals (and too many evangelicals) who want to synthesize Christianity with the prevailing culture. In the third model there were said to be three subsets. Trevin Wax gives a helpful survey of the options Niebuhr presented. For his exemplars of the synthetic approach, under Christ above culture, Niebuhr pointed to Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas. For his exemplars of the paradoxical view, he highlighted Luther and Kirkegaard. As his examples of transformational view he pointed to Augustine, Calvin, and F. D. Maurice.

Niebuhr’s taxonomy is a useful starting place but it is a poor stopping place since, as in all such taxonomies, there are ways in which it works for pedagogical purposes, and ways in which it does not. It is too simplistic. E.g., Tertullian’s relations to the prevailing Roman culture were more complex than Niebuhr was able to present. Tertullian was as amusing, biting, and persuasive as he was because he had been deeply influenced by the rhetorical culture of his time and yet, because of his profound Christian commitment, he recognized fundamental ways in which Christianity was at odds with the prevailing culture of his time. When he asked what Jerusalem had to do with Athens, he was asking a very important question. He went on to say that we do not need Zeno’s porch, i.e., pagan philosophy because we have Solomon’s porch, i.e., God’s Word. Now that is just brilliant and he was right. He was not saying that we need not know pagan philosophy but that we do not rely on it. However much we might admire Zeno (or any other pagan, e.g., Plato or Aristotle) fundamentally Christianity gives a competing account of the origin of the world, the meaning of the world, the significance of humanity, sin, salvation, and eschatology.

Similarly, we could criticize the notion that Thomas was synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity. Indeed, in my view, his debt to neo-Platonism (via Pseudo-Dionysius) is a much more interesting and important question. Was Justin really synthesizing Greek ideas with Christianity? He made use of Greek vocabulary but so did the Apostle John. To be sure, Justin’s Logos theology was not exactly John’s and we should prefer John’s to Justin’s. As for treating Augustine and Calvin as transformational figures, that was an anachronism. Certainly they put to use their considerable learning in the classics in the service of Christ but plundering the Egyptians (Augustine) and adopting a neo-Ciceronian Latin style (Calvin) is not exactly transformational in nature. There is another way of thinking about the relations of Christ to culture.

But First A Word From Our Sponsor

Before we get to Christ and culture we have to get straight our understanding of nature and grace. There have been three views among Christians historically:

  1. Grace perfects nature (gratia non tollat naturam, sed perficiat).
  2. Grace obliterates nature (gratia tollit naturam)
  3. Grace renews nature (gratia perficit naturam)

The first famously comes from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica (1a 1.8) where he was answering the question whether theology is a matter of argument, i.e., whether reason has any role in theology and if so, what? He first answers the objection that argument has no place in theology, i.e., that it is a matter of sheer authority. The second objection is twofold, that if theology is a matter of argument then the argument is either from authority or from reason and both are unfitting. His initial response is to quote Titus 1:9 to the effect that it is part of a pastor’s job to persuade people, which entails making reasoned arguments. His more complete argument is that we do not argue to principles but from principles—more evidence that what you may have heard and read about Thomas may not be entirely accurate—and thus from the general to the specific. The famous dictum occurs in his response to the second objection.

But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says, ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’ Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers  in those question in which they are able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus, ‘As some of your own poets said, “For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).’ Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of the authorities as extrinsic  and probable arguments; but proper used the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof and the authority of the doctors of the Church [Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome] as one that may be properly used, yet merely as probable. (modified from the Dominican Fathers edition)

For Thomas, nature is not able to attain to the supernatural. Thus, for Adam to have entered into the state of blessedness at the end of his probation he needed the aid of grace. Most of the Reformed rejected this idea since they affirmed that Adam was created “good, i.e., in righteousness and true holiness” and able by nature to know and love God and neighbor and thereby to enter into a blessedness (Heidelberg Catechism 6; Canons of Dort 3/4.1; ibid., RE 3/4.2; Belgic Confession art. 14). For Thomas, our more fundamental problem is that we are finite. For the Reformed, our fundamental problem is not our finitude but our sin.

The Anabaptists, like earlier groups with an over-realized eschatology, essentially denied nature as a category. For them, grace and salvation are such that nature is essentially wiped out. Whereas, for Thomas and those following him, grace will eventually perfect (even deify) nature, for the Anabaptists, grace wipes out nature now. American evangelical theology, piety, and practice has deeply influenced by this way of relating nature and grace and thus it permeates evangelical thinking even though most are not aware of it. It affects the way people look at culture, their doctrine of humanity, their Christology, and their ethics. Practically, it means that there is little sense of a created order or a natural law. Further, Barth’s rejection of Thomas’ saying as “arch-heresy” (Natur und Gnade, 8 as quoted in Berkhof, Systematic Theology 446) led to untold chaos and error in modern liberal, evangelical, and even in ostensibly “conservative” Reformed circles.

The classical Reformed approach was to reject the Anabaptist view by quoting the Thomistic dictum, which they redefined. The Reformed were asserting the goodness of creation and the existence of creation as a category, which was essential to their doctrine of the covenant of works. Further, because they did not have an over-realized eschatology and because they did not understand “gratia non tollit” in light of the assumptions that Thomas made (about a sort of ladder of being between us and God), what they were saying is better expressed by saying, grace  renews nature, in salvation, which is something they often said. One simply does not see them writing much about “cosmic redemption,” or “cultural transformation” in this life prior to the return of Christ.

Christ And Culture: The Sacred And the Secular

Tragically, the adjective secular has taken on a very negative connotation. It should not be so among Christians. Bernard Lewis (as D. G. Hart points out in his book, A Secular Faith) gave us the category of the secular. In the pagan Roman world everything was “religious.” All the food was devoted to the gods. Paul said, however, that we are free to eat meat offered to the gods so long as our hosts do not say to us, “This meal is devoted to the gods” (1 Cor 10:28). At that point, the meal is no longer a common, secular meal but is now an overtly religious meal. That we may not share in a pagan feast. We may not drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons (1 Cor 10:21; see the whole discussion in chapters 8–10). Provided, however, that it is an ordinary, common, secular meal we are free to eat (or not eat) as conscience and wisdom dictate.

In the New Testament we see no movement to “redeem” or “transform” secular cultural practices or politics. The New Testament Christians and the early post-Apostolic Christians sought to live quietly (1 Thess 4: 11; 2 Thess 3:12; 1 Tim 2:2). They worked assiduously to stay out of the way, to be left alone and so much so that when the pagans spread false rumors about them, they had to be tortured by the authorities to be made to reveal where the Christians met for worship and what they did there. They were not quietists. The Christians in the New Testament and in the early post-apostolic church were defending the faith to pagans (but not to the mob—consider Polycarp’s refusal to give a defense of the faith the mob in the circus). The literature from the period shows them engaging the culture but not seeking to transform or to dominate it.

Both Paul (e.g., Phil 3:20) and the Epistle to Diognetus (c. AD 150) taught that we live in a twofold kingdom. Paul invoked his civil rights as a Roman citizen but only after he was beaten and when it was to the advantage of his mission. He spoke to the powers of this world but he spoke about a kingdom whose builder and maker is God, whose kingdom shall no end. To the Philippians, who lived in a Roman retirement town, he wrote that, however valuable their Roman citizenship was, which had often been purchased at the cost of their own blood, “our citizenship is in heaven,” and that citizenship was purchased at the cost of Christ’s precious blood. We do no see Paul or any other apostle giving policy advice to Caesar.  We see the same approach in the anonymous Ad Diognetum, where he argued that we live in two spheres simultaneously:

[The Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility (Ad Diognetum, 5:5–17 in Michael William Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 541.

I submit that this approach to Christ and culture does not fit Niebuhr’s taxonomy. It is neither transformational, nor is it merely oppositional. It certainly is not “of” the culture yet, as the writer himself says, they are in the culture. We Christians are in the midst of the pagans, we are neighbors to them, we share the streets and markets in common, we eat the same food, we share the same language but not the same gods. We conduct a normal human life under the laws of creation, like everyone else, but we do so with an eye to the consummation of the age and under the Lordship of Christ, the only Savior and the reigning King of all.

There are two extremes to be avoided here, quietism (fleeing culture) and dominion (conquering culture).

Anabaptists: The New Monks

The medieval monks tried to flee the cultures of their day but, in fact, they only took it with them into the monasteries. They created little villages of sinners fleeing the obligations of family and community. The Protestants rejected world flight as an approach to culture. In the early 16th century the Anabaptists, disgusted with the state of the established churches, rebelled and set up alternate villages and churches which they sought to make entirely pure, in this world, before the return of Christ. Most of them envisioned that Christ was returning quickly to establish an 1,000 year earthly kingdom in which Christ would reign visibly over all his enemies. Until then, however, when they were not taking over cities (e.g., Münster) or leading the Peasant Revolt (20, 0000 soldiers) they fled the culture. It is important for American Christians to know a little bit about this movement since it has been deeply influential on American evangelical Christianity since the early 19th century. For more on this see “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in ed. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91. (Apple Books version).

Reformed Reconquistadores?

In our time, there is a movement among some Spanish speakers in the USA. It is called the “La Reconquista” movement. It seeks to “take back” portions of the Southwest for Spanish-speaking peoples (La Raza) and particularly for Mexico. There is an analogous movement in some quarters of the Reformed world. After rejecting the ancient Christian and classical Reformed approach to Christ and culture, after rejecting the classical Reformed distinction between the sacred and the secular, it seeks to “reconquer” America for Christ. Like the Anabaptists, it has an over-realized eschatology. Like the Anabaptists, it is impatient and like them it sometimes creates small communities with an expectation that those communities will help usher in a glorious visible manifestation of the power of Christ on the earth. For more on this see the resources on theonomy and reconstructionism below.

D. Some Of All Of The Above

Christ is sovereign over all things but he has placed Christians and the visible church in this fallen world as a witness to him and to his kingdom. We live alongside the pagans but we are not of them. We are against their understanding of the world and their religion yet we are not at war with them. We seek to live at peace with them and peacefully, graciously, to win as many of them to Christ and to his kingdom as his sovereign grace allows.

We all live in a culture. Many of us live in multiple cultures simultaneously without even realizing it. We are all influenced by our surrounding cultures. Before Christians can decide how to navigate this life, how to live with our pagan neighbors, how to be truly Christian in the midst of profoundly anti-Christian cultures, we must become aware that the relationship of Christ to culture is a great question. We need to ask ourselves how we are being influenced by our culture. How are we unintentionally baptizing the surrounding culture and calling it Christianity? One way this happens is when we set as a goal not the Kingdom of heaven but a nice middle-class American families and nice middle-class lives in the here and now. There is nothing wrong with a nice suburban middle-class life but that is not the kingdom and it is not Christianity. If we become aware of this and begin to see the difference, we will be taking important steps toward working through the problem of Christ and culture for ourselves.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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