Christianity and Culture
Our Lord commands us in the Sermon on the Mount to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:16). David declares of God,
For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light. (Psa. 36:9)
But men seek light elsewhere; rather, they seek to be their own light. Isaiah tells us of God's verdict on all such men:
Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow. (Isa. 50:11)
Rather than the light of God, men seek to generate their own light and vision. They are men of darkness, seeking an escape by their own self-exaltation. They dream that their wisdom will give them the necessary light. Calvin felt that God was saying to all such men, You have rejected Me and sought to kindle your own light to escape the darkness. Well, now your life will take its course in your own fire, which will be, not your salvation, but your destruction: "at the place of torment ye shall lie down!"1 They will create the culture of death.
We have seen that the false definition of culture restricts it to an upper class element interested in the arts. This interest is a non-Christian and therefore a superficial one. In New York, people read, not books so much as book reviews, to know how to think; they visit the "trendy" art galleries in order to know art as it presently is supposed to be. The "legitimate theater" may be offering garbage, even as the films and television do, but it is "high" art as against the "low-brow" art of the more popular media. In a meaning unintended by Alan Levy in The Culture Vultures (1968), these people, whether in New York, London, Paris, or Moscow, are culture vultures.
Culture vultures believe that only the best in art is true culture, and it is to be enjoyed only by the best among men, namely, themselves. The popular definitions of culture are thus elitist as well as anti-Christian. In this sense, culture is seen as the prerogative of an exclusive group of people to the exclusion of those deemed uncultured.
Our Lord, however, sees the necessity of externalizing the new life we have in Him. Because we are regenerated by His saving grace, we must seek to regenerate all men and to work for the "new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Pet. 3:13). We are the people of the Jubilee, and our Lord at Nazareth read the great Jubilee proclamation of Isaiah 61:1ff.:
16. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.
19. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him
21. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. (Luke 4:16-21)
These verses were part of the early church's marching orders. They preached salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They had a ministry of healing, and they soon established hospitals. They preached to the poor as well as the rich; they healed the brokenhearted, ransomed captives, healed the spiritually as well as the physically blind, and they set free the oppressed, those bruised or crushed by oppression.
The early church included many prominent people, lawyers, philosophers, men of state, and so on. But it also included slaves, and the poor. Such a mingling of peoples in an elitist culture brought them contempt as a slave religion. These despised Christians were creating a Christian culture, one in which all relations, vocations, spheres of activity, and persons were aspects of God's Kingdom and an evidence of a new culture. The Christians were hated because they were effectual and successful.
This hatred is a witness to Christian power. John Dryden in the seventeenth century showed aristocratic disdain for the Puritans as trash, describing them as the "rascal rabble ...whom kings no title gave, and God no grace."2 This same "cultured contempt" is very much with us still.
One index to our loss of cultural power is the fact that a once very important Christian doctrine is now rarely heard of, namely, providence. The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us,
18. God's works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving, and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.
It was held also that, because man is created in God's image, man therefore has a duty to be provident. For this reason, over the centuries, the provident duties were faithfully preached and practiced: family virtues, thrift, charity, work, honesty, a trustworthy word, and so on. The Puritans especially stressed these things and thereby became powerful. Providence was a favorite doctrine for them, and a name given to ships and to at least one city. Providence, Charity, Faith, Hope, and like names were commonly given to girls.
In the past two hundred years, Providence has been steadily replaced by Revolution. Instead of stressing providence, the culture of Revolution stresses envy and violence. The work ethic has been replaced by the envy ethic. The solution to problems is not God's law faithfully observed but the violent overthrow of the present order. The doctrine of Providence stresses the ultimate harmony of all interests in the Lord, whereas Revolution insists on the continual conflict of interests. As early as 1659 in England, men were turning from Providence to Revolution. Richard Flecknoe wrote, "all things in this world being in perpetual revolution, tis impossible from the beginning to see the end of all things."3 The believers in God's providence held and hold with Peter, "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18). Moreover, God sets forth His work in His Word, so that it is possible from the beginning to see the end of all things.
It is God's providence that all manner of men be saved, that all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations know Christ as Lord and Savior (Rev. 5:9).
This cannot be done if we are poor towards God and His servants. In the eighteenth century, an evil idea gained power which in many circles is still with us. In Scotland, the General Assembly, with lay leaders dominating it, refused to raise ministerial salaries. Their self-righteous and hypocritical argument was this: "A poor church is a pure church." The result was the triumph of secularism.4
According to Jeffrey Burton Russell, basic to medieval culture was the fact that "holiness, rather than fame or wealth, was the way to obtain status."5 Without narrowing our vision to holiness, but including godly knowledge and dominion, with righteousness or justice, we must say that a Christian culture must manifest all these things in the service of God, and, in the Lord, to men.
The Greek doctrine of justice was plainly stated by Antiphon the Sophist, apparently an Athenian of the latter half of the fifth century B.C. He declared, "Justice, then, is not to transgress that which is the law of the city in which one is a citizen."6 This is clear and obvious humanism. It is the faith of our time, and the culture of our time. Righteousness or justice is the tie that binds and holds a culture together. The growing injustice of humanistic states is leading to fearfulness, fragmentation, and inner decay. We must have a Christian culture, governed by God's law-word, and ever mindful that God holds us accountable for the maintenance of His order. The tests of a culture as God declares them are blunt and earnest:
21. Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
22. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.
23. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry;
24. And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Ex. 22:21-24)
A Christian culture begins where other cultures do not venture, with the Word of God and His mandate to us for every sphere of life and thought.
(Reprinted from In His Service [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2009], 75-80.)
1. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 304-05.
2. Ruth Nevo, The Dial of Virtue, A Study of Poems on Affairs of State in the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, University Press, 1963), 254.
3. Ibid., 95.
4. G. R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,  1967), 91.
5. Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History of Medieval Christianity, Prophecy and Order (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968), 84.
6. Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 147.
Topics: Culture , Biblical Law, Reformed Thought, Philosophy