The Biblical Necessity of A Christian Culture, Part I: Working Definitions

The original version of this post set the tone for my biblical discussion of the topic of Christian culture by briefly remarking on my journey out of what I once called “optimistic amillennialism” into postmillennialism. In this revised version of the post I want to avoid the amillennialist / postmillennialist debate as much as possible and focus my attention on biblical considerations concerning what might be best labelled a “basic” Christian view of culture and the relationship of Christians to it.

This is because too often in my experience discussions about “Christian culture” get sidetracked into the by now stereotypical arguments between eschatological schools, and the prooftexts start flying fast and furious before any of the necessary prolegomena has been done and each side has had a chance to see that perhaps they agree on certain theoretical propositions but “merely” disagree on applications of those propositions to the world of experience. I think that it might be better to first discuss a more general view of what the Bible teaches about culture and cultural activity, and then later on argue biblically and historically and systematically about specific Christian cultural approaches and programs (such as amillennialism and postmillennialism).

Before turning to the general subject I must define some key terms that I will be using throughout these posts. First, the term “Christian.” Most basically and obviously, this term must be defined with reference to Christ. H. Richard Niebuhr points out first that “A Christian is ordinarily defined as ‘one who believes in Jesus Christ’ or as a ‘follower of Jesus Christ’,” and then, interestingly, goes on for some pages discussing various aspects of the historical recognition that “So great ‘is the variety of personal and communal ‘belief in Jesus Christ,’ so manifold the interpretation of his essential nature, that the question must arise whether the Christ of Christianity is indeed one Lord.”:”(Christ and Culture [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1951], pp. 11-12.)”:

Niebuhr then excellently reminds us of two difficulties all attempts to more specifically define “Christ” (and therefore, “Christian”) must face: (1) “the impossibility of stating adequately by means of concepts and propositions a principle which presents itself in the form of person,” and (2) “the impossibility of saying anything about this person which is not also relative to the particular standpoint in the church, history, and culture of the one who undertakes to describe him.”:”(Ibid., pg. 14.)”: This point means, as the subsequent discussion shows, only that different communities in history which have claimed allegiance to “Christ” have often conceived of His person and work in different ways and so have inevitably created different types of “Christian cultures” with different goals and different programs.:”(Niebuhr’s study has become famous precisely because he divides the history of Christian cultural work into five distinct and quite helpful theories: (1) Christ Against Culture, (2) The Christ of Culture, (3) Christ Above Culture, (4) Christ and Culture in Paradox, and (5) Christ the Transformer of Culture.)”:

Because I am not writing a tome, it will have to suffice here for me to state openly that I think of the biblical teachings about Christ (His person and work) within the framework of the creeds of the patristic era of Christendom. Obviously a great deal of biblical exegesis was involved in the formation of these creeds, and this exegetical material can be readily found in both print and on the Internet. I cheerfully admit that I am quite biased against the many views of Christ which those creeds were written to combat. I am not a Gnostic or a Docetist or an Arian or an Adoptionist or a Patripassian or a Nestorian or a Monophysite, and so forth. My view of what the Bible teaches about Christ is well-described in non-biblical terminology by the great creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon (at the very least; I will not say I believe nothing else about Christ than what these two creeds state). I deny the method that Niebuhr calls “Biblical positivism, pointing to the New Testament and foregoing all interpretation”–as if such a thing was even possible. Every engagement with the Scriptures entails interpretation, and as Hans Georg Gadamer has helpfully observed belonging to a tradition is simply a basic condition of any hermeneutical enterprise.:”(I have taken this phraseology from some handwritten notes of mine on a chapter from Gadamer’s book Truth and Method. Unfortunately, I did not record Gadamer’s exact words or the pagination of the book in my notes.)”:

Thus the prolegomena to all my thinking about “Christ” is the ecumenical credal consensus about the meaning of the biblical message of Christ and His person. I take the biblical exegesis standing behind this credal consensus as my starting point, and I further assume that most readers of this blog, not being e.g., Mormons or Buddhists or Muslims or Atheists, will at least agree with the
basics of the tradition to which I am appealing (how ever diversely they may conceive of its relationship to Scripture), so I feel justified in discussing “culture” relative to “Christ” in a way which simply assumes this understanding of the latter. A “Christian” in my view is accordingly someone who visibly identifies himself as a follower of the “Christ” so described (questions of faithfulness are not in view at this point). A “Christian culture” is a culture which is visibly striving to conform itself to “the philosophy of Christ” (Col. 2:8) by bringing everything in the culture into obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

All of which brings us at last to the second major term in my posts: “culture.” In its most basic etymological sense, “culture,” from the Latin cultura, means “cultivation, tilling, plowing.” Abstracting from the action of plowing we arrive at the notion of “developing nature’s potential.” Expanding this out to areas other than the original notion of farming, the term “culture” becomes, in Calvinist Henry Van Til’s words, “the secondary environment which has been superimposed upon nature by man’s creative effort.”:”(Cited in David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture [Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999], pg. 15.)”: Understood in this sense, I believe it is is impossible for anyone living in a body and interacting with the physical world which God has created to escape “cultural” activity. Every interaction we have with the physical creation is a form of “plowing,” and is thus a form of “cultural” activity. The question for Christians engaged in cultural activity thus is not “Should we create a culture?”, but rather “What kind of culture shall we create?”

So that everything is on the table beforehand, let me further state that I am assuming two basic truisms which are related to each other. First, I am assuming that the physical creation and working with it for the purpose of unfolding its potential is a very good (and inescapable) thing. Second, I am assuming that Christ’s redemptive work as the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14) includes restoring (not simply discarding) the physical creation that man’s sin has damaged. I will make a few brief remarks on each of these points and then close this first post.

First, physical creation (the thing to be “plowed”) is, as God Himself said in the beginning, “very good” (Gen. 1:31). To borrow the words of the eminent C.S. Lewis, “God likes matter–he made lots of it.” To this fact we must add the subsequent one that God placed Adam in the physical Garden for the purpose of cultivating it (Gen. 2:5). Plowing–cultural endeavor–was simply a part of the original, pre-Fall condition of man made in God’s image. Even after the Fall, though, this mission of cultivation did not cease but only became more difficult than before (Gen. 3:17-19). These facts seem to entail that all forms of attempted retreat from cultural endeavor are biblically wrong, for even fallen man is still required to plow the ground and bring out its potentials (i.e., to “culture” the earth). This is why contrasting Genesis with Revelation has led some recent Calvinist cultural theorists to summarize the biblical view of culture by saying “The Bible begins in a [uncultivated] Garden and ends in a [developed] City.”

Second, because Jesus Christ, the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) come to restore what the first Adam had lost by Himslf destroying the works of the Devil (1 Jn. 3:8), became flesh and dwelt among us I do not believe that it is possible to biblically argue that created, physical reality is something to be denigrated or escaped from. To extend the remark of Lewis cited above, God apparently liked matter so much that He did not shrink from becoming intimately involved with it Himself. There is, of course, a great deal of New Testament Scripture which speaks negatively of “the flesh” and contrasts it with “the spirit,” but we must take care how we interpret and apply these warnings since Docetism and Gnosticism and Manichaeanism–all drastically unbiblical notions about God and Christ and creation–are the direct results of radical dichotomies between physical (qua physical) and spiritual.

More will be said on the apparently negative biblical remarks about culture later in this series. For now I will simply state as a working premise of my view that whatever qualifications we may find in Scripture concerning the extent of involvement in “the world,” any theological argument which denigrates the physical world as physical and recommends instead a flight into a radically dichotomized “spiritual” refuge is inherently anti-biblical because it is a tacit assault upon the fact of the incarnation of Christ. We must certainly take into account the consequences of the Fall of man upon the physical world, but considering the Fall should not lead us to a desire to be emancipated from physicality (creation) since the Apostle tells us that the redemption wrought by Christ will ultimately free the creation itself from bondage (Rom. 8:19-23).

This concludes my exposition of my working definitions. Let us now look at biblical arguments for and against creating a Christian culture.

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