The Temptation Of Cultural Christianity

It is a remarkable thing to see Baptists, Muscovite theonomists (aka Christian Nationalists), and Roman Catholics lamenting the death of cultural Christianity, but it is happening. I was reminded of these lamentations this week as I scrolled through my social media feed. Theologically and historically, one understands TheoRecons lamenting the death of Christendom and pining for its renaissance, and, of course, some Romanists long for the days before republican governments—it was not very long ago when papacy held that classical liberal government was heresy—but it is rather surprising to see Baptists lamenting the death of Christendom and cultural Christianity.1 After all, the Baptist movement was part of a rebellion against Christendom, against nominal Christianity, and for regenerate church membership. The Baptist movement and allied movements (e.g., certain congregationalists with a high realized eschatology) were originally deeply troubled by cultural Christianity and by Christendom, whether defined as the church-state complex or the privileging of Christianity (and Christians) by the state and the culture (which was the American experience until the mid-1970s).

Defining Our Term

What is cultural Christianity? The Christian nationalist Stephen Wolfe, characterizes it this way:

In a Societas Christiana, the cultural practices of the people are going to be colored with Christianity. The manners, greetings, civic rituals, centers of solidarity, and so on are “Christianized” in the sense that while the formal principles are natural (and therefore not distinctively Christian), their content will be distinctively Christian. For example, the principle of manners as a necessary part of civility does not in itself dictate any particular set of manners, yet in a Christian society manners would be Christian in content. Festivals would be Christian festivals. Civil ceremonies would include Christian invocations. Christianity is adjectival vis-à-vis civil community. Such Christianization, while not abrogating natural principles, perfects outward order.

Nevertheless, Christendom is nostalgic for it is seductive. The position once held by evangelical Anglicans in the UK is a good example of the attractiveness of Christendom. There were good reasons for American Baptists and other evangelicals to envy evangelical Anglicans in the UK. There were, it seemed, theologically solid, warmly evangelical leaders among the Anglicans after World War II. Those evangelicals were advocating a heartfelt piety, a high view of Scripture, historic Christian orthodoxy, affirming the Reformation solas, and exhibiting a concern for the lost. As I emerged from my initial Christian instruction, which mostly consisted of Navigator workbooks and the like, I found solid stuff in John Stott’s Basic Christianity and J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and later, Packer’s Knowing God. Further, they belonged to the state church. They were not only accepted in England, but they had the approval of the state. They had a place in the culture. C. S. Lewis had recorded apologetic talks on Christianity, which were broadcast on the BBC. Can one imagine National Public Radio funding and broadcasting apologetic talks on Christianity? Some of the evangelical Anglicans even hobnobbed with the Queen, who professed a form of evangelical Christianity. In BBC television shows, Anglican ministers sometimes appeared in a favorable light. That sense of cultural approval, even if mostly formal, was very attractive.

Longing For Mayberry

I understand the longing and nostalgia that evangelicals have for another time and another place. Let us call it Mayberry. I came to faith in the mid-1970s, at the tail end of the Jesus People movement. For all the manipulation built in to the altar calls, the “discipleship” movement, and the pressure to have a “Quiet Time,” there was a kind of sweet, earnest, naïveté about the evangelicals in the 70s. The modern nation of Israel had been formed just about 30 years prior and that seemed to be a sure signal that the end was near. They were sure that Jesus was coming soon but they were going to rock out to Larry Norman until he did. My hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska was Mayberry or very close to it. There was no crime to speak of (except for the story that was discussed in yesterday’s article). Heaven help the poor fellow who did not come to full and complete stop at a stop sign downtown because the local police force had little to do. They were happy to write you a ticket and give you a lecture on your civic responsibilities. The law is a pedagogue.

The Christianity of my hometown, certainly among the mainline churches, about which Aaron Renn is far too optimistic,2 was almost entirely cultural. Did it have a restraining effect? Yes, it did. Was Lincoln a better place in which to live and raise a family? Yes. There was less crime and it was very quiet. Andrew Walker, a Baptist, reflected on some of the benefits lost as cultural Christianity gives way to naked paganism.

From concepts like dignity, justice, and rights to the centrality of the family to the idea of life having an ultimate purpose—all of these have found unique expression in Western civilization as the result of Christianity. Even many non-Christian historians would agree with this analysis. Society requires some governing moral vision at its center.

He warns that, in a post-Christian society,

. . . the naked public square will be harsh on many groups, not just Christians. To lament the decline of cultural Christianity is to lament not simply the loss of a Christian consensus, but the loss of the social capital born of common grace that secular society was borrowing from. Is it any surprise that a growing secularity is coinciding with the hollowing out of American civil society?

I agree entirely, but this is all beside the point. Lincoln was also much smaller town back then (about 50% of the present population) and geographically contained and more culturally homogeneous. Like Lake Woebgon, it was a town that time forgot. The Cultural Christianity that dominated Lincoln back then was an inch deep and a mile wide. The preaching in most of the mainline churches, were constituted most of the churches in town (including fifty-two United Methodist congregations) was, as far as I was able to tell, Christless. It was moralistic deism. The therapeutic revolution was just getting underway.

The Negative World Is The World

Whatever nostalgia I might have for Lincoln/Mayberry is beside the point. That world, which Renn rightly characterizes as a “positive world” for Christians, is gone. We passed quickly through the “neutral world” phase and have plunged headlong into the “negative world.” As Christians we need to remember that Christianity was not born in a positive or neutral world, but in a very negative world. Because Christendom in the Mediterranean world and in Europe dates to AD 380, and because a form of Christendom (symbolized by cultural Protestantism) persisted in the USA until about 1990, we very easily forget the Christian faith was not revealed in the midst of Christendom or in the midst of cultural Christianity. Christ himself was not privileged or favored by any cultural institution, elite members of society, or cultural or political authority. Jesus was at odds with the Jewish religious authorities, who fostered a form of cultural religion, from the very moment he began his ministry. He was hounded for three years and finally murdered. The religious authorities used the pagan Roman authorities to do it but they engineered it. His Apostles were persecuted by both the Jewish religious authorities and the pagan Roman authorities. They were beaten, jailed, and finally martyred. The Apostles advocated an illegal religion and they did so without the support or approval of the prevailing culture. The post-canonical church was also hounded by the Jewish religious leaders, who complained constantly to the Roman authorities about them and they were hated and killed, with increasing frequency through the third century. Christianity was born, developed, worked out its early theology, piety, and practice in a profoundly hostile world.

The pining we are seeing for a lost world is understandable but it is quite misplaced. The city for which we should be longing is not Mayberry, but the city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). After all, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). When Scripture speaks about the “world” (κόσμος) it is almost always portrayed as that entity which is hostile to Christ and his gospel. Jesus, the true light, was “in the world and the world was made through him and the world did not know him” (John 1:10). When Christianity was born, as it were, the world was a cold, dangerous place. It was not Mayberry. There was no “cultural Christianity.” Paganism was dominant and sexual immorality, to pick one class of sin, was open and advertised.

One sees not a shred of evidence that the New Testament is interested in “cultural Christianity.” Indeed, the Old Testament prophets railed against cultural Christianity, a religion with an outward form but without an inward heart (e.g., Isa 29:13). Nevertheless, Stephen Wolfe tweeted recently that “cultural Christianity is enough.” That would be a hard sell to the Apostles and the other martyrs. The Apostle James seems extremely dissatisfied with cultural Christianity.

The temptation of cultural Christianity is acceptance by the culture. The mainline denominations gave up everything that was objectionable about Christianity in order to curry favor with the country club. Now who cares about the mainline? The pastor to the Hebrews understood that the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were being tempted to go back to a legal religion, a religion accorded some status by the Empire: Judaism. It had outward rituals. It had a priesthood. It had buildings. He called them to look to Christ, to whom Moses was looking, who is the Temple, and who is the priest. He called them not too long for acceptance by and peace with the culture but to turn away from it to Christ: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:13–14).

God the Son did not become incarnate to establish cultural Christianity. He became incarnate to accomplish salvation for his people. The Christianity the Apostles sought to foster was far distant from cultural Christianity. Further, culture is an expression of nature not grace. We should doubt the propriety of speaking of a Christian culture just as we should doubt the truth of Christian plumbing. There are good plumbers and bad. A good plumber pays attention to the laws of physics. There are good cultures, i.e., those that cohere with the nature of things and there are bad cultures, which defy nature such as ours. What we need is not to recover cultural Christianity but natural, humane culture. Strip dancing men in libraries is not natural and everyone knows it. It is manifestly dangerous to have grown males naked in a female locker room. That is a matter of universal knowledge and sense experience. Christians have a place in culture just as they have a place in any other natural sphere but we need not baptize culture or ought we to be satisfied with lukewarm (Rev 3:16), watered down Christianity for the sake of the culture. Cultural preservation is important but we can work to that end with natural resources (provided by common grace).

NOTES

1. I am thinking about the papal encyclical, “Mirari Vos: On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism” published by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832. See esp. §§14–17, 20. In this context, “classically liberal” has little to do with the way people use the word liberal in contemporary partisan politics. In this context it means, the American Republic as the founders intended it, without an established church, with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. There is a reason why President Kennedy had to persuade the Baptists in Texas that, as president, he would be obligated to the Constitution of the United States and not to the opinions of the papacy.

2. This is regarding his recent interview on the Paleo-Protestant Podcast, in which he talked about a Protestant mainline in ways that, in my reading and experience, do not reflect reality.


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6 comments

  1. Excellent essay. I don’t understand what is so difficult for these fellows. Our Lord said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”.

    Well, actually, yes I do understand, when I stop and think about it. It’s the same problem I have sometimes: PRIDE.

    Whenever I read anything Wolfe writes, btw, I invariably think of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYWRu8uT8z8

  2. Thank you for this Dr. Clark. This was one of your best essays on Christ, culture and Christendom. I thoroughly enjoy reading your perspective on our culture with respect to Nature and Grace. Keep them coming!

    As an aside, I also thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay on the serial killer Charles Starkweather. It was such an engaging read that I had to go find some YouTube stories on it. I had no idea that this happened in Lincoln in the 50s!

  3. Dr. Clark,
    As a relatively new subscriber to your site, I would first say there’s much here upon which to be encouraged. I do appreciate your savvy and the insights that proceed from it, even if I’m a bit off put by the theological invectives offered on the soteriology of my man, Jonathan Edwards, in your multipiece critique on the same topic in MacArthur’s book. But that’s a polemic for another day, as today I am curious about A.D.390 being a date ascribed to nascent Christianity in the Mediterranean/European world. Hadn’t the longest surviving Apostle been gone for 3 centuries by that date?
    Thanks again for the timely comments, James Lumbert.

    • James,

      Welcome to the HB!

      1. Re: Edwards. He should not be “your man.” I understand that it can be a shock to the system, but Edwards was nothing if not an idiosyncratic theologian. I strongly recommend that you listen to Richard Muller’s inaugural lecture at the (now defunct) Edwards Center. Here are more resources on Edwards. Since the doctrine of justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church (so Alsted) I think you should start with his doctrine of justification which was, to put it mildly, problematic. There is more on Edwards in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Links to this title are published in the resources of this post.

      2. MacArthur has similar issues.

      3. AD 380 is a significant date because it was in that year that Theododius I made Christianity the state religion of the empire. The Apostles did no such thing, which is one of the points the essay tried to make.

  4. Somehow they assume only Christians are disturbed by the excesses of this debauched age. I know Muslims, Hindus and atheists who are equally concerned if not more. Beneath the bluster is a pining for a geographically defined safe space. One where the lords of the land perceive the means of grace not as foolishness but respectable acts in service to society at large.

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