Christian Culture Today, Not Yesterday or Tomorrow
Slightly modified from of an address delivered to the Eighteenth Annual Reformation Conference, Covenant Reformed Church, Sacramento, California, November 3, 2001
The question is not whether we should work toward a Christian culture. Of course we should.
These conferences presuppose a commitment to Christian culture. They are held in a Reformed church. The Reformed Faith - more importantly, the Bible - demands the Lordship of Christ in all of life. This is part of what it means to be Reformed - and, I would add, Christian.
What, by the way, is culture? It is the dominant, inner religious conviction of a society that is manifested externally in its arts, its education, its economics, its law, its politics, its science, its technology, and so on. Religion is the bones, and culture is the skin, of a society. Let's hear the last line of Henry Van Til's newly re-issued classic The Calvinistic Concept of Culture: "[A] people's religion comes to expression in its culture, and Christians can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society" (p. 245). We all agree - or should agree-with this conviction.
The Bible tells us in Ephesians 1 that Jesus Christ (through the church) is Lord of all things. We cannot say that there are certain areas of life immune to Christ's Lordship. Such a notion is unthinkable. In the old evangelical maxim, "If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, He's not Lord at all." This includes a society's culture.
The New Secular Culture
But today (in case you hadn't noticed) we do not live in a Christian culture. We are little, isolated Christian islands surrounded by a raging ocean of secularism. We have strong Christian families (though there are too few of these). We have strong Christian churches (sadly, even fewer of these). What we do not have is a strong Christian culture. And we haven't had one for some time. The United States hasn't had a Christian culture in the North since about 1825, and the South hasn't had one since roughly 1865. Our nation has replaced the religion of Christianity with the religion of secularism.
And make no mistake: secularism is a religion. The authors of the Humanist Manifesto I, men like John Dewey, wrote this:
Religious humanists [!] regard the universe as self-existing and not created.... Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.... Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.... Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.... While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that could hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity for the present [they say]. (emphasis supplied)
Secular humanists aren't against religion, you see. They are only against a religion like Christianity. They are against a religion like ours that affirms a sovereign God.
Secularism is the notion, the conviction, the consciousness, that there is no God, or that if there is a God, He is not involved in this world. We are left to ourselves; we must save ourselves. This is the secular milieu that surrounds us. And we're all aware of it (aren't we?)
Now a lot of us bray and bluster about how Christians are poised today to retake the society for Jesus Christ. We mean well, and we are partly correct. But too often (I'm convinced) this is so much sounding brass and tinkling symbol. Why? We can't take seriously the situation that confronts us today. Why? We are culturally ignorant. We don't know how to act.
Now this is a key point: While the Bible does not change, our strategy about how to apply the Bible certainly does change. Israel in Canaan did not act the same as Israel in Babylonian captivity. She had a different calling, and the prophets were very clear in pointing out what that different calling was. Our calling is adapted to our circumstances. If we deny this, we will tilt at windmills and dishonor the One Who called us. We are called to be "wise as serpents" in dealing with the evil culture around us (Mt. 10:16). We're often sincere and even well equipped; we're just not very wise.
Esther 1:13 speaks of wise men in ancient Israel who "knew the times." Today we need men - and women and young people - who know the times. We need Christians who know the postmodern times (to use Gene Veith's language), and now, after 9-11, the post-postmodern times.
Fortunately, we have a fervent commitment to Christian culture. Unfortunately, we often don't know how to work toward Christian culture today.
Living in the Christian Culture of the Past
There are two main problems here. First, we have first those Christians who live in the Christian culture of the past. Let's call them Historicists. It's understandable why they should want to live in the past.
We live in a deeply anti-historical age. Thomas Jefferson believed, "The earth belongs to the living," not the dead. Today the implicit Jeffersonians are everywhere. Most are secular humanists. To these folks, history and tradition are considered not so much irrelevant as unreal - they are not within the purview of the reality in which most of us live.
In conscious reaction to this New A-Historical Reality, many conservative Christians and churches, the Historicists, have deliberately recovered a profound sense of the historical. We read books of history. We read great biographies. We have heroes. We love the ancient confessions of faith. We romanticize about Calvin's Geneva, Puritan New England, and the Scottish Covenanters. This is all good.
Let us never forget that there is a glorious Christian culture in the past - in our past. This is medieval Europe. This is Reformation Europe. This is southern Europe and Russia. This is colonial America, and even the United States, to an extent.
Unfortunately, we have lost this culture. It's a thing of the past. There are still vestiges of it today; and we should get on our faces and thank God for those vestiges. But they are vestiges. They are not the old Christian culture.
Many Christians want that expression of Christian culture back.
If they are Eastern Orthodox, they covet the years of the early undivided church. If they are Roman Catholic, they look back longingly at the High Middle Ages. If they are Reformational, they want to repristinate 16th and 17th century Europe. If they are Methodist, they want to reproduce the great revivals of the 17-1800's. If they are Pentecostal, they forever peer backward to the Azusa Street Mission in the early 20th century.
It's painful, for example, to observe certain historicist Christians (and not just Roman Catholics) try to recover medieval Christian culture. They have a love affair with Latin. They love cathedrals. They love the "classical tradition." They love the trivium. I imagine there's nothing too bad about all this, unless you think it's going to make any big impact for Christian culture today. It isn't. We don't live in the medieval Christian era (thank God!) - and we never will again. We can appreciate this Christian past without thinking we have to reproduce it.
A wiser than you or I, Solomon, uttered in Ecclesiastes 7:10, "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this." In other words, they weren't the "good old days."
At a family reunion my father once said, "That ice cream when I was a boy was so much better than the ice cream today."
To which my grandfather shrewdly replied, "The ice cream when you were a boy is always much better than the ice cream when you're an adult."
The past is not usually better than the present, but it is to those of us who romanticize.
To recover the past is not to reproduce the past, and we shouldn't try. We love Calvin's Geneva, but we wouldn't want to follow Calvin in imposing price controls. We love the Puritans, but we wouldn't want to resume the Salem witch trials, though the Left has certainly overplayed their scope. We may love the Old South, but we abhor - or should abhor - its slavery. The Old South is gone forever, and that's good - though the Old South was certainly better than the New North!
The early orthodox creeds came about because the emperor called a catholic synod. I'm quite certain nobody here wants to make George W. Bush a new Byzantine-style American emperor in order to get the theological consensus that gave us the Nicene Creed. We can appreciate the product without reproducing the process.
If we live in the Christian culture of the past, we will likely think that past methods will work in the present. But they won't - and shouldn't.
If the gospel and the message of Christian culture (and let me suggest they are two sides to the same coin) are authentic and efficacious, they are no less authentic and efficacious today than 2000, or 1000, or 500 years ago. We don't need to reproduce the Christian culture of the past if we have the God of the present.
The Bible and the Holy Spirit (I say it reverently) haven't run out of steam over the last 100 years or so.
Living in the Christian Culture of the Future
The historicists want to reproduce the Christian culture of the past. But there is another problem from another direction. This is usually the mistake of some of us postmillennialists. We read God's promises of a future holy world before Christ's Advent. We get excited about this. And we should. But then we do something we shouldn't: we expect those benefits before the time, and we start acting on that false expectation. Let's call these Christians, Futurists. They live in the Christian future, not the less-than-Christian present. They read that the Bible predicts a glorious godly future here on earth - and it does - but they want that future now.
When it doesn't arrive soon enough, they often get frustrated and angry. Or they attack Christians who are willing to work at it patiently.
For instance, it's not enough, for the moment, to reduce abortions year by year. They work to defeat any legislation except legislation that would outlaw all abortions next week.
It's not enough, for the moment, to replace a philandering President with a deeply flawed but basic Christian man. They must have a fire-breathing Calvinist or nobody at all.
It's not enough, for the moment, to support good Christian day schools and colleges. Unless these schools agree with our sector of the church 100%, they're not worthy of support.
They want the benefit of a Christian future without the trouble of going through the laborious steps to get there from the less-than-Christian present.
Now (in my view) we can't be either Historicists or Futurists. We must be Saints of the Present. What else can we be? Let's consider the following.
God's Sovereignty in Our History
First, let's accept the fact that God placed us in history now, at this time. It's amazing how good Calvinists can see the sovereignty of God in the history of the past and anticipate it in the future, but seem to dismiss it in the present. But the God Who was at work with David and Paul and Augustine and Bernard and Luther and Calvin and George Washington and George Whitefield and Stonewall Jackson is at work today. God is sovereign in our history.
Christians often chafe under this fact. They would prefer to live in other times. But this is dissatisfaction with God's sovereignty, isn't it? It's a great time to be alive! What glorious opportunities confront us! We have the means to virtually reach the world with digitized messages. We have unprecedented wealth - at least a lot more than our forefathers did. We have a multitude of good churches and Christian schools. Sure, we have lots of problems too, but we also have great opportunities. The pious jeremiads we hear (increasingly furious and shrill since 9-11) need to be tempered with this realization.
Let's admit that God can make things better over time - and that He has. This is godly progress.
We have Constitutional civil government today. Our medieval brothers did not have this great benefit. It's a Christian concept. I don't want to go back to monarchies, even Christian monarchies. Do you?
We have free markets. Almost all of our forefathers before the 16th century believed in national socialism, or "protectionism." I believe that, in principle if not precept, the Bible forbids this. They meant well, but they were wrong. I'm glad things are the way they are today.
Let's thank God that He has placed us where He has placed in history, in spite of the great sins and problems we confront.
Second, we must not expect the sorts of victories we would expect were we on the verge of a Christian culture. Moses told Israel in Deuteronomy 7:22:
And the LORD thy God will put out those [pagan] nations before thee by little and little: thou mayest not consume them at once, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee. (emphasis added)
We don't get the millennium all at once.
This is especially true in politics. It's amazing (and sad) at how many Christians have begun to ape the Left. The Left believes that political change is central. We believe that spiritual change is central. Spiritual change comes first.
I have some news for you. Barring a miracle, we won't have a thundering Calvinistic Congress any time soon. We won't have a Ten-Commandment-observing Supreme Court next term.
Our system is not designed for drastic political changes. The Founders were too smart for (and scared of) drastic political changes - and so should we. They wanted there to be a consensus in the population and in the civil government before there could be political change. This is why we have a Constitution. It puts the skids on both passionate minorities and fickle majorities.
We have too many impatient Christians - this is counterproductive. And it is contradictory for postmillennialists. They often want Christian politics before a Christian population. Sorry, you won't get it. The system is rigged against it.
And it's a good thing too. This forces us to be faithful in the small things. Like what?
Educate your children in the Faith. Win converts. Build up the church. Penetrate the arts - opera, architecture, ballet, popular music, theater, the big screen, television, and dance. Get Christians elected to lower political offices. Support Christian charities. Show the unsaved world that the Christian way is the superior way.
Is Christ the Lord of all areas of life? You'd better believe He is! And just because He is Lord, we cannot sell out to methods and techniques that doom us to oblivion - all in the name of zeal and purity.
Let us not despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).
Today there are fewer abortions in the U. S. annually. As long as there is one abortion, there are too many. But let's be glad the number is going down.
There are fewer teenage pregnancies today.
There is less gun control advocacy since the horrific 9-11 disaster.
Can we rejoice in, and build on, these small victories? I hope so, because if we cannot build on small victories, we will never have big victories. David had to kill the lion and the bear before he could kill Goliath. Jesus had to defeat Satan in the wilderness before He could defeat Him at Calvary.
Do not despise the day of small things.
Christian Love versus the Real Enemy
Finally, let's recall who the real enemy is. Let me suggest that we have too many Calvinistic fundamentalists. I mean, like "fightin' fundamentalists." The fundamentalists early last century fought the liberals. This is good. But when they left their denominations, they had no more liberals to fight, so they started fighting - and destroying - one another.
For us to have Christian culture, we must have some sort of Christian consensus. Rome's idea is a mammoth organizational church under the direction of the Pontiff. We dissent vigorously from this. But that doesn't mean we don't need a legitimate consensus.
It is no compromise to create alliances with other Christians, even if we don't share all of their doctrinal distinctives. Francis Schaeffer (I believe) called these co-belligerents. Let's work with our brothers and sisters in Christ where we can.
Let's fight the Devil's crowd, not the Lord's crowd. Jude 3 requires us to earnestly contend, or fight, for the Faith. That's referring to the Devil's crowd. Let's fight the modernists. Let's fight the Bible-deniers. Let's fight the heretics. Let's fight the abortionists. Let's fight the pornographers. Let's fight the Marxists. Let's fight the homosexuals. Let's fight the racists. Let's fight the Communists. Let's fight the Muslims. Let's fight the evolutionists. Let's fight the secular humanists. But let's not fight God's people.
As one writer stated a few years ago, "What sense is there in leveling our critical guns at our allies when so many worthy targets exist?" Let's blast the worthy targets.
I (and perhaps you) have seen lives and churches and ministries decimated by a spirit of all-out nuclear war between the saints. Brethren, this ought not to be. Let us be convicted by the apostle Paul's powerful metaphor that we not "bite and devour" each other, lest we "consume" each other (Gal. 5:15). We can call this repellant practice Christian cannibalism. And if we consume each other, who's left to fight the Devil and His crowd? How the Devil must delight at this Christian cannibalism.
But let me hasten to add that the basic issue here is not pragmatism in the face of a rapacious secular beast. We are commanded to love our brethren. This is the second great command of the law (Mt. 22:39). The apostle John writes, "And this is his commandment, That we should . . . love one another, as he gave us commandment" (1 John 3:23). Loving our brothers and sisters is not just a good idea. It's God's law. When we refuse to love our brothers, we are antinomian, or lawless.
Sound doctrine is a vital part of the identity of the church. But let us never forget that unbelievers are not impressed by doctrine. They are impressed by charity. The unbelieving Jews saw Jesus' love for Lazarus and exclaimed, "Behold how he loved him!" (Jn. 11:36). Our Lord Himself uttered, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (Jn. 13:35). There will be no Christian culture without Christian charity. We need an urgent revival of that charity.
First, we must be relevant Christians. We see God's work in this hour, and we must do it.
Second, we must be patient Christians. We must not get ahead of God. We must be faithful and let Him work His sovereign will in His own sovereign time.
Finally, we must be charitable Christians. We must love God - and our neighbor - passionately. If we don't love each other, we don't deserve a Christian culture.
We must be relevant. We must be patient. We must be charitable.
We read in Acts 13:36, "For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep." When we come to the end of our earthly days, let it be said of us, we served our generation.
Topics: Culture , Eschatology