In the first part of this series I cited the Calvinist Henry Van Til’s words that culture is “the secondary environment which has been superimposed upon nature by man’s creative effort,” and noted that on this definition it is impossible for anyone living in a body and interacting with the created world to avoid cultural endeavors. The question for Christians is thus not “Shall we create a culture?”, but “What kind of culture will we create?” Understanding thus that creating and living in a Christian culture in some form is really inescapable, here I want to introduce a further distinction, namely, between a Christian culture that is a perpetual sub-culture within a larger one (typically labelled “the world”) and a Christian culture which seeks to be the larger culture and subordinate all others to the Sovereign Lord Christ, Who Alone above all is King and Lord (Eph. 1:21-23). Since the latter concept is what I am ultimately defending in these posts, I must ask whether there any biblical warrant for this kind of Christian culture.
This question becomes relevant when we recognize that there are many passages of the Bible, especially in the New Testament, which, if read in a certain way seem to teach a duty of Christians withdrawing as much as possible from the larger culture outside of purportedly “spiritual” things. If passages such as John 18:36, 2 Cor. 4:16-18, Philippians 1:7 and 20-28, Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13 and 3:2-3, Hebrews 11:9-16, and 1 John 5:19 are read in isolation from the larger incarnational worldview of Scripture, if key terms such as “world” and “flesh” and “spirit” are not carefully defined in keeping with their own context and the larger context of the whole of Scripture, the result seems to be that Scripture teaches an ethic of radical withdrawal from cultural activity beyond the limited sphere of the “spiritual” things within the culturally marginalized realm of the Church. In this post I will offer some limited, but hopefully helpful, thoughts on such “culturally negative” passages as these.
When approaching passages such as the ones listed above, we must keep in the foreground several basic facts. First, the physical creation is good (Gen. 1:31). Second, even after the Fall cultural activity is man’s duty (Gen. 3:17-19). And third, the Son of God Himself has taken on flesh and dwelt among us for the purpose of destroying all the works of the evil one – including the distortions of man’s cultural efforts. I will deal with these “positive” passages in more detail in the third installment of this series, but again I argue that these passages provide the necessary framework through which negative ones about “the world” and “the flesh” and the purported superiority of the “spiritual” must be interpreted so that we do not inadvertently embrace Christological heresies and base our cultural work upon them.
To begin, let us hear the Apostle John: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36). These words of our Lord were uttered while he stood before Pilate, having been convicted by the Jews of attempting to forcibly overthrow Caesar’s government (i.e., as if Jesus was just one more in the string of violent “revolutionaries” who had been periodically arising for decades to fight for Jewish political independence from Rome). Jesus here denies that he is a crass political revolutionary in the sense that the zealot-type Jews of his day were looking for: someone to come in and toss the existing temporal government out on its ear and restore a mere political independence, as it were, “of the Jews, by the Jews, and for the Jews.” Incarnationally speaking, it does not seem plausible that Jesus could mean by these words to Pilate that Christian involvement in say, politics, is a bad thing and to be avoided, for although his kingdom is not created by physical means and does not seek merely physical goals (as do merely physical kingdoms) it certainly has significant interfaces with the physical world.
Consider that when a group of Roman soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do to follow him (Luke 3:14), he as the forerunner of the Christ does not tell them to stop being soldiers (because the kingdom of God has no need of soldiers since it is “spiritual”) but rather gives them instructions on how to be godly soldiers. The rest of the New Testament’s teaching about civil government seems to indicate that it is a good thing in and of itself, ordained by God for good purposes (e.g., Rom. 13). How many examples could be drawn from Scripture? Luke was a physician by trade (Col. 4:14), and evidently saw no conflict between interacting with the physical world in this capacity and his commitment to the kingdom which was “not of this world.” Should we suppose that Luke’s Christian commitments had no impact on his work as a doctor? (And would anyone, even someone trying impossibly to get away from culture, seriously argue such a thing anyway?) In Acts we meet Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:14), who was a “seller of purple”, and another man who was a jailer but who was not, apparently, instructed to stop being a jailer once he was converted (Acts 16:27-34). Had King Agrippa been converted (Acts 25), would Paul have told him to step down from the kingship because he was now a Christian and Christ’s “kingdom” is not “worldly”? Need we continue?
In short, physical (cultural) activity within the created world is as inescapable for Christians as it is for non-Christians. Nowhere in Scripture do we find Christians being told that because Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world” they are to give up “secular” jobs and retreat into “spiritual” roles. Nor are we told anywhere that said “secular” jobs are of less worth than the “spiritual” ones because “worldly stuff” is ultimately unimportant to God. God is busy redeeming the creation itself (Rom. 8:39), so let us not try to be more “spiritual” than God! The kingdom of God is not of the world, but it is in the world, and so it seems implausible to me to derive from John 18:36 (and similar passages) the radically general notion that significant work toward positively-impacting the larger world of culture is to be eschewed by Christians.
Moving on we come to 2 Cor. 4:16-18, which tells us: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Again, I have to say that I do not see a plausible way to read this passage as teaching a general principle that Christians should withdraw from cultural activity. I certainly would not argue that Christians involved in cultural activity ought to look to the cultural activity itself (“the things which are seen”) as being eternal and the final goal of their work for the kingdom. Faith, of course, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), and I would certainly say that whatever cultural work we do we ought to view it through the eyes of faith and not mere sight.
Accordingly, I would say that faithful cultural activity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. At any rate, it is interesting to trace the argument from 2 Corinthians 4 on into chapter 5, where we find Paul arguing that while we “prefer” to be at home with the Lord (which entails leaving our “earthly tent” behind), nevertheless we also “long to be clothed” with the eschatological end of redemption, “our dwelling from heaven.” Further, we will be judged for our deeds in the body (“this tent”), which doesn’t sound like those deeds are ultimately unimportant! Not to mention that in his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul teaches that the resurrection of Christ’s physical body is the ultimate proof of the Gospel and that we are to look forward to that sort of physical resurrection as well (1 Cor. 15). Physicality, and work within the physical order of things, is not to be shunned by the Christian–and certainly not to be denigrated as somehow less “godly” than a special class of things called “spiritual” which have no significant connections to the physical.
What then of Philippians 1:7 and 20-28? Here we read that Paul wants most of all to be found faithful in having contended for the Gospel (1:7) and that in striving for the Gospel Christians will be delivered from their enemies by God. Where, I ask, is any indication in any of this that cultural activity is to be eschewed? Preaching the Gospel, striving for it, even suffering for it–these are all actions which take place inside the created physical order and which have significant impacts upon it. When men are converted by the sovereign work of the Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel, they do not thereby cease to have bodies or cease to engage from day to day with the physical creation. Rather, having been redeemed they go out into the world to strive for (and sometimes, yes, to suffer for) the Gospel and to spread it farther in the physical world. This of necessity means that they must apply the Gospel’s redemptive message to their cultural activities. What is this if not “plowing”; what is this if not “culture”? And since the word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura, which means cultivation of the physical creation to bring out its potentialities, isn’t it significant that Scripture’s talk about the Gospel and the Kingdom so frequently relies upon agricultural metaphors (seeds, sowing, watering, reaping, etc.)? The Gospel itself seems to be a “cultural activity” merely by the metaphors with which Scripture describes it!
Next we come to Colossians 1:13 and 3:2-3. Here we are first told that Christ has delivered us “into the kingdom of his dear son,” and then instructed to “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Once again I see nothing that even remotely implies that Christians should withdraw from cultural activity–unless perhaps the redemption of which this passage speaks is thought of as entailing an escape from physicality and temporality as things which are in and of themselves corrupted and thus not fit for godly men and women to partake of. Think about it for a minute. Is there any reason why someone with his affections set on things above could not apply what he sees in those things above to the things below? What if he was assuming with Scripture (again, Gen. 1:31; Jn. 1:14) that those things are in and of themselves good but just in need of redemption because of sin? In what way would such a view be unfaithful to Scripture? Rather, in light of God’s own declaration about the goodness of physical creation and in the further light of the incarnation, it begins to appear that the other sort of view, in the name of a very narrow focus on selected parts of Scripture, is unfaithful to Scripture’s whole intent. If faith without works is dead just like a body without a spirit (James 2:26), what is a redemption that ignores the body because it pretends the body is inherently a bad thing?
Winding down, we come to Hebrews 11:9-16, which in the midst of chronicling the lives of great men and women of faith tells us that “if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” This seems to be a similar theme to Philippians 3:20, which speaks of the fact that the Christian’s “citizenship” is in heaven. Once more it seems difficult to extract from this passage the notion of cultural withdrawal. Desiring “a better country” is not necesarily the same thing as pretending the one you live in now is simply worthless and that your daily actions as you pursue your pilgrimage toward the better country cannot (ought not?) be designed to have any significant redemptive effects on the country you are travelling through. Aren’t we as Christians to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:13-16)? Salt, of course, is a preserver and our light is not to be hidden under a bushel (Mt. 5:15).
Ironically, given that this Hebrews passage says so much about the Old Testament saints, it is the Old Testament that is very often drastically downplayed by the “this world is not my home I’m just passing through” type of Christian. The Old Testament is often thought of by such saints as “less spiritual” than the New–which leads to all kinds of deep theological and practical problems precisely because without all that raw physicality in the Old Testament there would have been no raw physical entrance of Christ into the world to redeem us and it! The more that these seemingly “culturally negative” passages of the New Testament are read through the incarnational lens of the whole of Scripture (and not just as standalone maxims enjoining a radically dichotomous approach to reality), the less plausible it seems that they can in any sense justify a scheme of cultural withdrawal by Christians. There’s just no way to biblically escape physicality–and as His long history of acting within the created world and through the means of His people well shows, God is quite plainly concerned with redeeming it and has no desire at all to shun it.
Finally we come to 1 John 5:19. “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness,” saith the Scriptures. Yes and amen, but what does this have to do with a vision of withdrawal from the physical and temporal–especially since it is the very same Apostle John who so strongly defends the incarnation of the Word and makes his polemic against the Gnostics entirely depend on denial of the incarnation? 1 John is full of negative remarks about “the world” and “the things in the world” (e.g., 2:16-17) but as any first year Greek student soon learns, the word “world” has multiple meanings in John’s corpus, not just one. Without making this post excessively prolix by attempting to pull together exegetical resources on that subject, I would say that on a much more simple level just reading 1 John in the light of John’s own deep incarnational emphasis seems to render it immediately implausible that by “the world” and “the things in the world” he could mean physicality per se.
For John, in fact, radically denigrating physicality per se is exactly what the Gnostics and Docetists are doing, and he labels this sort of denigration of matter as the error of the spirit of antichrist! Thus it seems deductively implausible to me that the Apostle John could be advocating cultural withdrawal in any sense other than the warning “Don’t be involved in unbelieving culture and let it pull you away from Christ.” Who could possibly argue with that? But again, that says nothing either way about Christian endeavors to affect the culture at large in a redemptive fashion–especially not if such is simply inescapable because we are physical beings and cannot cease to physically interact with the creation.
To conclude this post, I believe that the “culturally negative” passages such as the ones I have cited and interacted with above must be interpreted through the framework of God’s declaration in Genesis 1:31 that creation is “very good,” the recognition that even after the Fall man has an inescapable duty of cultural activity, and John 1:14′s announcement that God Himself has become flesh and dwelt among us. When we understand that physicality, and that cultural work within its created order, is simply a biblical mandate and that God Himself has initiated a process of redeeming the creation from its bondage to sin and decay, I think it is implausible to read the “negative” passages as indicating that Christians must seek always to be a minority sub-culture, always withdrawing, always retreating, always looking for an ever-imminent divinely-provided “escape hatch” from “the world”. We must instead, as I will argue in the next post, seek the establishment of the kind of “Christian culture” that is the larger culture.