The Biblical Necessity of a Christian Culture, Part III: Positive Biblical Considerations

In this post I will set forth some positive biblical arguments for why Christians must try to create a culture that is dominant, not dominated. Before I get into that, however, it is time to revisit the theme with which I began the original version of the first post in this series: the differences between amillennialist and postmillennialist cultural visions. I am only going to say one thing about this for now, and that is that the vision of creating a dominant Christian culture which I will present below seems to me to be something that even an amillennialist could hold, because there is a difference between creating a culture and what one expects in the long term from that culture.

In other words, amillennialists do not expect Christian cultural influence to progressively dominate the world, but as the arguments and behavior of some of their best contemporary theologians show they also do not expect Christians to be culturally marginal all the time. In the more robust forms of their view they have a significant place for Christians in culture, and I don’t see that it would take them far afield of their amillenialism if they imagined that a whole bunch of Christians doing some really serious cultural work would achieve at some point a sort of “critical mass” and bring about a real live Christian culture. This is enough, it seems to me, to allow an amillennialist to coherently hold the same basic positive cultural vision as the postmillennialist. The amil / postmil divide in terms of long-term cultural expectations need not, it seems to me, prevent them merely working together to form a stable, visible, significantly-impactive Christian culture.

Although I am a postmillennialist, I am not in this series of posts arguing directly for postmillennialism. I am arguing only for the biblical necessity of creating a visible Christian culture–that is, a culture which is explicitly informed by Christian presuppositions in every area of its endeavor (art, science, jurisprudence, recreation, architecture, literature, social theory, etc.) and which actively, visibly seeks to cast down imaginations and bring every thought into the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). I have already argued that cultural activity is entirely inescapable because of what the very word “culture” means. I have further argued that even after the Fall cultural activity is a necessary part of man’s mission on earth and that developing the potentials of the creation through cultural work is a good thing because the creation is a good thing (albeit one which is damaged and in the process of being redeemed).

That is what I am arguing for. On the flipside, I am arguing against the notion that Christianity should be just one more marginalized religious voice in a crowded “marketplace of ideas”, where each “competitor” agrees to play by the rules of a supposedly “neutral” party (in our day, the State) which enforces “tolerance” amongst them all by separating “religion” from everything else. Regardless of changes in the times which make our relations with others in public relatively peaceful rather than hostile, Jehovah has not ceased to be a jealous God and He will still have no other gods before Him. Where I believe the biblical case needs to be made is on the fact of Christ’s Kingship not just in some ethereal “spiritual” sense, but in a space-time sense as well–which then entails that all other space and time kings must bow the knee to Him.

What are some biblical considerations in favor of this view? First, from its very inception Christianity got itself in trouble with the presumptions of a purely secular order of things, for although Jesus taught the legitimacy of Caesar’s government, especially in terms of giving to Caesar what is his by God’s grant (Lk. 20:25), Jesus Himself was accused by the Jews of claiming to be a higher King than Caesar (Lk. 23:2). Later, as we read in Acts 17:6, the Apostles were accused of saying “there is another King, Jesus,” thus turning the world upside down by striking at the presumption of Caesar to be “king of kings”. This is, by the way, exactly why the great disciple of the Apostle John, Polycarp, was executed. Read his story and note (Ch. X) that the only thing he had to do to save his life was to give a simple oath of fidelity to Caesar, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.:”(The Martyrdom of Polycarp)”:

Second, Ephesians 1:21-22 tells us that having raised Christ from the dead the Father set Him at His right hand “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and hath put all things under his feet.” Which things are under Jesus’s feet? All things, especially a list of things which includes “worldly” entities not merely in the age which is to come but in this age as well.

Third, Philippians 2:9-11 echoes this triumphalism: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Which knees will bow at the name of Jesus? Every knee, everywhere, at every time. In other words, to borrow Van Tilian language, because Christ is King there is no autonomy (auto + nomos = self law) anywhere.

But what does “Kingship” mean in terms of Christ’s mission and message, especially since as we saw in the last segment Christ Himself claimed that his kingdom was “not of this world”? I believe that we must be on very strenuous guard in how we read this aspect of Jesus’s teachings, for like everyone else we are children of our age and can too easily confuse what is “self evident” to us with what we think must have been so to others. Unlike previous ages, especially the one in which the biblical writers themselves lived, our age is one in which “religion” has been increasingly conceptually and practically separated from the rest of life. “Religion” in our Modern era is not about “facts”, and so it is something that you do inside your home or your church, as a matter of your own private “spirituality.” Under no circumstances is it something you take out into the public square with you, much less something that, once there, you use to actively try to topple the “beliefs” of others.

The great “separation of Church and State” and its accompanying ethos of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” together mean that you are not allowed to claim that your King is better than everyone else’s, much less that everyone else’s has to bow to yours. Notice how this completely conflicts with the above-cited Scriptures about the nature of Christ’s Kingship. It is also fundamentally opposed to the Gospel as announced to us in the whole of the Bible (not just the New Testament, read through Modern eyes), for the Christian Gospel was, in its original setting, not at all a message about “soteriology” in the Modern, privatized sense of changing your own internal spiritual orientation and causing you to withdraw from the larger world. In its original setting, the Gospel message, that is, the message that “Jesus is Lord,” was not merely a message of how your soul could go to heaven when your (irrelevant because “unspiritual”) body died, but rather a message which had radically subversive societal implications.:”(See N.T. Wright, Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire)”:

Contra widespread forms of so-called “New Testament Christianity” which denigrate the Old Testament via radicalized Spirit / Matter and External / Internal dichotomies, the whole of Scripture teaches us that Christ’s Kingship must have visible effects on the space and time world. Indeed, Wright reminds us that “[the Jews understood] that, precisely because of Israel’s status within the purposes of the creator god, Israel’s king was always supposed to be the world’s true king. ‘His dominion shall be from one sea to the other; from the River to the ends of the earth’ (Ps. 72.8). ‘The root of Jesse shall rise to rule the nations; in him shall the nations hope’ (Isa. 11.10, cited Rom. 15.12).”:”(Ibid.)”:

What then, does Christ’s “ruling” the nations mean? Obviously Christ Himself is in heaven seated at the right hand of God, but what is He doing there in terms of His kingship? The Old Testament is full of explanations of what Christ’s Kingship means for the space and time world; space allows us to look only at a few key passages. Psalm 2 tells us that the Messianic King, Christ, has been given the nations and the very ends of the earth as His inheritance and that He will rule them with a rod of iron. If this sounds very space-and-time-ish, it should, as should the similar promise in Psalm 22:7-8 that “All ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.” Psalm 72:8-11 describes the Messiah’s reign as encompassing “dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth,” and includes vivid imagery of His enemies bowing before him and licking the dust. Then comes the magnificence of Psalm 110:1-2, which tells us that Christ shall remain at the Father’s right hand until He has put all His enemies under His feet (Ps. 110:1-2).

By far the most vivid picture (to me, anyway) is the vision of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2. Here the greatest king on the earth at that time is shown a prophetic vision of the progress of earthly kingdoms, symbolized by an image made of metals of increasingly downgrading quality. By the time the kingdom of mixed clay and iron (Rome) arrives on the scene, “a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it smote the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces…[and] the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (vv. 31-35). Daniel 7:13-14 expands upon this theme, depicting, evidently, the ascension of Christ to His Father, at which time “to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” in a kingdom which, upon being inaugurated, shall never come to an end. The contrast between the increasingly downgrading quality of the worldly kingdoms with the absolute, progressively dominating quality of Christ’s Kingdom could not be more stark.

These powerful Old Testament images of the Kingdom of the Messiah visibly shattering space and time sovereignties, placing them all under Christ’s feet, seem difficult to square with a conception of the Kingdom of Christ on earth being a merely “spiritual” affair involving the withdrawal of His people from “worldly” activities. Christians are often described in the New Testament in military terms, and as such we are assuredly instruments through which the visible, space-and-time dominion of Christ is spread abroad in the world. It is true that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12), but at the same time the Old Testament imagery remains in the New, as can be well seen in 1 Corinthians 15:24-25: “Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet”. Christ will “hand over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.”

Now given the centrality of the cross for Christianity, but especially for Protestant conceptions of the nature and extent of redemption, I think it is highly significant that the elevation of Christ to that position of visibly supreme Kingship happened as a result of His work on the cross, as Colossians 2:15 tells us: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” Christ is on His throne now, and as He Himself has told us, the kingdom of heaven “is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it” (Luke 13:19). Verse 20 goes on to teach that the kingdom “is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Galatians 5:9 tells us that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” and although we often find the leaven metaphor in the Gospels at least being a metaphorical description of the Pharisees I do not see why the principle would not also be true of faithful Christians. I.e., a little Christian leaven in the cultural loaf leavens the whole loaf.

The foregoing has by no means been a comprehensive survey of biblical reasons for working to create a visibly dominant Christian culture, but I hope that it has been of some use in goading further thought on what the Bible says about the subject. The perspective I have outlined in this short series is one which is rooted firmly in the Bible’s teachings about the inherent goodness of the physical creation and man’s duty, even though fallen, with respect to it. Because creation (beginning) and eschatology (ending) are linked, it seems clear that some coherence of views about the two is required. Some cultural visions–chiefly very pessimistic, “spiritual”-oriented ones–simply are not in accord with the Bible’s view of creation. Hence, any view of culture which can be summarized by the maxim “Why polish brass on a sinking ship” ought to be considered biblically out of bounds. We are Christians, not Manichaeans or Gnostics.

On the other hand, various optimistic schemes of how Christians should engage culture and what they should expect from their cultural activities may certainly be proposed and biblically debated–and should be without undue rancor. To return to my opening theme, whether one is an amillennialist or a postmillennialist does not appear, on the most basic level, to be as relevant to Christian cultural work as is often supposed. These two groups will certainly differ in their understandings of some passages of Scripture, and accordingly will very often have different expectations for any Christian culture that is produced. But that Christians must be involved in cultural work and that they should strive to bring the culture around them into conformity with the sovereignty of the Lord Christ should be a maxim on which both groups can agree. It is impossible, both biblically and experientially, to avoid creating a Christian culture. The question we all face is what kind of Christian culture will we create.

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