Cult and Culture
What is Christian culture? Until quite recently, Western culture was a Christian culture. Yet, this unimpeachable fact is decreasingly relevant to the daily life of the West. We live in the midst of a continuing cultural rebellion that began with the French Revolution, plateaued during the sexual revolution, and now marches forward as Christendom seems to gasp for life.
As the culture war rages around us, the church faces difficult questions: What is the relationship between Christ and culture? What should be the focus of the church’s witness to the culture? Is such a thing as Christian culture desirable or even possible?
From Cult to Culture
Historian Christopher Dawson defines culture as â€œa common social way of lifeâ€”a way of life with a tradition behind it, which has embodied itself in institutions and which involves moral standards and principlesâ€ (Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, Gerald Russello, ed., p. 3). Dawson continues by noting the fragility of such an inheritance. “Every society can lose its culture either completely or partially, if it is exposed to violent or far reaching changes.” As the West stands upon the brink of cultural extinction, many Reformed Christians stand aloof from the fight, considering that the spirituality of the church demands her silence on cultural matters.
While the church must preserve its holy character as being separate from the world, this separation is never absolute. In fact, eminent historians and social critics such as Arnold Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Russell Kirk have noted that culture develops from the cult (or worshiping community). Kirk writes:
“Once people are joined together in the cult, cooperation for many other things becomes possible. Systematic agriculture, armed defense, irrigation, architecture, the visual arts, music, and more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and governmentâ€”all these features of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie. And especially a web of morals, rules for human conduct, is the product of religious belief” (The Politics of Prudence, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993, p. 200).
Thus, while cult and culture must remain distinct, they can never be divorced. Therefore, while our Covenanter fathers once fought to define the proper distinction between church and state, our fight is to defend the biblical union between Christ and culture.
Fallen Nature and Common Grace
The biblical relationship between Christ and culture can be seen in the covenant of common grace made in the time of Noah. Following the Fall, the stability of God’s creation was fundamentally challenged. Groaning under the weight of sin, nature was twisted and marred. Sin had begun its terrible reign. Yet history did not come to an end. Rather, God declared to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). History will continue for the sake of the elect “offspring of the woman.”
Not all of history is redemptive history. God promised a seed to the woman, but also a seed to the serpent. The serpent’s seed would play an important role in history. Although the latter are not numbered among the elect, the consummation of their curse has been postponed. As they live, so they enjoy much good. In fact, the blessings of creative cultural advancement (in the sciences, arts, and agriculture) were all associated with the reprobate line of Cain (Gen. 4:17-22). As Jesus reminds us, “He makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). We call these blessings common (that is non-redemptive) grace.
To speak of common grace is to speak of a more limited concept than redemptive grace. Redemptive grace fixes what is broken. Common grace only sustains. Like the cocktail often used to treat AIDS patients, common grace sustains but does not cure. Therefore, as the culture that existed after the Fall degenerated into absolute depravity, so common grace was replaced by common curse during the water deluge.
Covenant of Common Grace
As God poured forth the waters of judgment, Noah and his family found favor in His sight. Gathered in the ark of salvation, Noah and his family would bring forth a new humanity upon an earth cleansed of much evil. In response to divine deliverance, Noah humbled himself in worship. â€œThen Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altarâ€ (Gen. 8:20). Noahâ€™s response is instructive. God redeems people in order to restore fellowship. Worship is the purpose of new life in Christ.
Interestingly, it is in response to the worship of His redeemed covenant community that God reestablishes the promise of history. We read, â€œAnd when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in His heart, â€˜I will never again curse the ground because of manâ€ (Gen. 8:21). The altar alone assures life to a world deserving of death. It is the worshiping community, the mystical body of Christ, scattered across the ages and among the nations, that provides the reason for history.
We must, therefore, understand that the cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of both redemptive and common grace. Paul refers to the living God as the â€œSavior of all people, especially those who believeâ€ (1 Tim. 4:10). What does it mean that God is the â€œsavior of all peopleâ€? John Calvin notes, â€œFor the word savior is here a general term, and denotes one who defends and preserves. He means that the kindness of God extends to all menâ€ (Calvinâ€™s Commentaries, Vol. 21, p. 113).
Where does such universal kindness, embracing the elect as well as the reprobate, come from? The answer is the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the only source of Godâ€™s blessing on fallen man. If it were not for Christ, the world and its inhabitants would have been consumed in judgment at the time of the Fall. Yet, the world continues and history moves forward. It does so because of Godâ€™s redemptive grace displayed in His elect and His common grace displayed in all mankind.
That common grace, the servant of redemptive grace, is expressed by Godâ€™s declaration, â€œI will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of manâ€™s heart is evil from his youthâ€ (Gen. 8:21). This is a striking declaration in light of Godâ€™s assessment of mankind immediately prior to the flood. â€œThe Lord saw the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuallyâ€ (6:5). The same pattern of universal depravity that led to the Flood is cited as the reason for Godâ€™s vow not to curse the ground in response to mankindâ€™s sin. Although the covenant family of Noah has been justified in Christ, the realities of sin and depravity have not been overcome. The seeds of sin have been transplanted from that time to this, because sin was an ever-present companion even in the midst of the ark of salvation. As sin is an affront to a holy God, in His justice He might bring forth a daily deluge. Yet, for the sake of His altar, for the sake of His worshiping community, God made a covenant promise to stay His mighty hand.
Rather than daily judgment, the creation, its laws, and its inhabitants are secured under the mediatorial authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. For His sake, and for the sake of His elect church, â€œseed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not ceaseâ€ (Gen. 8:22). Godâ€™s promise is gratuitous, establishing that as redemptive history unfolds, it will do so against a backdrop of natural and moral stability. The hand of a gracious mediator will administer the natural law. Christ the king will ensure that fallen nature will be ultimately perfected by grace.
Lord Over Nature and Grace
Theologians refer to Godâ€™s promise of cosmic stability as the covenant of common grace. This is an appropriate title as long as we see that it is fully rooted in the covenant of grace and wholly subservient to it. Thus, Christ is Lord over nature and grace, over church and state, over secular and sacred.
This does not destroy the fundamental distinctions involved. Nations do not become the church because of Christâ€™s universal rule. The sacred does not swallow the secular because Christ is Lord of the workplace as well as the prayer closet. Rather, it simply recognizes that these distinctions do not change the moral responsibility of all areas of life to bow the knee to Jesus Christ, not only as Creator, but also as mediatorial King.
This universal kingship demands that all areas of life be subject to His authority and lordship. It is His power that preserves the order of nature with its orderly cadence of times and seasons. It is His grace that sustains and preserves life in all its diversity. Therefore, it is obnoxious ingratitude to dishonor the Savior through deafening silence. Christ is to be honored and worshiped by all nations and men. His name is to be called upon, and His law is to govern the affairs of men.