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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Engaging the What?

Revelation and Culture

In the academic year 1908/1909, Dr. Herman Bavinck delivered the L. P. Stone Lectures at Princeton.[1] Of the eight lectures, only six were actually delivered. The English translation was performed by Bavinck’s lifelong friend, Geerhardus Vos, as well as Henry Dosker and Nicholas Steffens. For the next while, I want us to investigate Bavinck’s undelivered lecture, “Revelation and Culture,” especially in light of the fact that there is a renewed interest in culture in our time and that many evangelical and Reformed churches are greatly concerned about “engaging the culture,” to use the modern phrase.

It is not illegitimate to ask about and seek to engage “the culture,” but what seems to be missing from these discussions is the laying of a solid foundation so that all parties understand—fully—what we mean when we say “the culture” and precisely how we go about “engaging” it. The current discussion leaves too many questions unasked and therefore suffers from lack of clarity and precision. Let’s put it in the realm of Presbyterian and Reformed theology. If we engage the culture, what are acceptable and unacceptable areas of compromise? When we engage the culture, what are the most important presuppositions to mention first? How far, if at all, can we cooperate with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, and Muslims in engaging the culture? If we join with these groups how do we make it clear that we do not embrace their theology? To what extent should we make our Christian worldview (i.e., our views of God, man, society, truth, knowledge, and ethics) known from the outset if we decide to engage the culture? Do we need any particular expertise if we engage the culture? What about military chaplains? If a Christian chaplain is commanded to lead a Mormon or Muslim service, must he do it?

In the past, I have had numerous conversations with laymen and –women, pastors, and seminary professors about culture and have encountered vagaries, generalities, and confusion. Most need to rethink or think about for the first time what culture actually is. We often use the word as if we’re all on the same page or that we all understand what we mean when we use the term. We aren’t and we don’t. Many within the Reformed camp have not yet read Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism (currently published under the name Christianity: A Total World and Life System). Not that Kuyper is the end-all and be-all of cultural engagement, but he does supply us with a good leg up on what engaging the culture might entail.

The books published on culture are legion—for they are many. Reinhold Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society in 1932. In 1979, the Theologischer Verlag in Zürich, Switzerland reissued Emil Brunner’s Christentum und Kultur. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1951) remains a seminal work on the relationship of Christ and Christians to culture. The late professor of Art History at the Free University of Amsterdam, Hans Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is a fascinating read. (I got to know Rookmaaker when I studied at the Free. He was one of the Dutch experts on art and the history of art.) Almost anything written by Francis Schaeffer was his attempt to understand and engage culture. Ken Myers’ All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Christians and Popular Culture, remains a very worthwhile read. Most recently, D.A. Carson released his volume Christ & Culture Revisited (2008). Indeed, it is fruitful to revisit such a convoluted issue. Another work that is very valuable, but has not been translated into English is Klaas Schilder’s Dutch treatment in Christus en Cultuur. And with these books I’ve merely scratched the surface. I mentioned these particular works, however, because they put more ground under our feet than a great deal of what passes for culture.

For example, there is a magazine that is not an official publication of the PCA called byFaith. Quite often—almost every issue—there is a report of another PCA church plant that started up and prior to the service (or afterwards) there was an art exhibit, a jazz or classical quartet, brie cheese, and chardonnay for the initiates of finer culture. But is this actually engaging culture? There is a movement afoot today for Christians to be more involved in culture and cultural activities. I applaud that initiative and hope and pray that more Christians will become truly involved with “the arts.” I have a proviso, though. As Christians engage in “the arts” they will not jettison, compromise, or neglect good theology in the process.

I issue that warning because a real danger exists in this area. Once Christians begin “engaging the culture” there is a clear and present danger to compromise their faith at all levels. What lengths should a Christian actor or actress be willing to go to land a part in a movie? Should they be willing to perform scenes involving nudity or sexuality? How about swearing or taking the Lord’s Name in vain? What or who determines what good art is? Do you have to like opera to engage the culture? What if you cannot stand atonality? Are you a bigot or just uneducated—or both? What if you think movies generally are a waste of time, but go occasionally? Are you then a cultural Philistine or wise? What if you’ve never watched an episode of the most popular TV programs, have never seen, or care to see, American Idol, Oprah, Dr. Phil, or any “reality” show? In the realm of literature, do you have to read novels in order to engage the culture and be culturally hip? How do I, how does someone like Nancy Pelosi engage the auto industry? How politically savvy do I have to be in order to engage the culture at that level? Understand that I have not even begun to scratch the surface of questions that need to be asked and answered in a solid biblical fashion. We all live in culture, but to what degree ought we to engage it as Christians?

The late Dr. Klaas Schilder starts us in the right direction when he declares, “The problem of the relation between Christ and the culture immediately touches the foundational question of Christian thinking and behavior.”[2] Schilder was one of Bavinck’s students. He touches on the crux of the matter that has not yet come out of the woodwork in our current discussions regarding culture. Have we first asked the foundational questions based on Christian thinking and behavior? Some have; most haven’t. Schilder also reminds us that there is no undisputed definition of culture. Theists and pantheists are one-hundred-eighty degrees out of phase with one another with their respective definitions of culture. Christian theists are at odds with non-Christian theists on many points. Strict two kingdom Lutherans have disagreements with Calvinists about the nature of culture.[3]

Among the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle disagreed as did Spinoza and Descartes, Kant and Fichte, and Schleiermacher and Schlegel. In writing this series of articles, I’m not saying that Bavinck has the last word on the subject, but I am saying that we will do well to listen to a man such as Bavinck, who reflected long and hard God’s revelation to man and culture.

At the outset of the chapter “Revelation and Culture,” Bavinck outlines the situation historically. He writes, “When Christianity entered the world, it was immediately called on to face a difficult problem. Christianity, which is based on revelation, appeared in a world which had long existed and led its own life.”[4] The problem of autonomy remains today and vigorously refuses to be tamed. Secularists scream about Christians ramming their values down their throats and the reaction of some members of our culture to the rule of law is evident in the recent outbursts and threatened lawsuits in the Proposition 8 measure in California. In this sense, what Christianity initially experienced has not greatly changed in our time. The problem is still, although somewhat altered, pretty much the same. One of the changes, however, is that far too many Christians are not sure what the Bible says on any given issue or how to apply what Scripture says to the postmodern world in which we live. Since many Christians aren’t certain what the Bible says and a representative number of them believe truth is relative, these Christians are somewhat different from their early Church forebears. The other problem, however, which is autonomy, is the constant in the equation.

Of course, orthodox Christians take the reality of sin into account whereas many modern Christians from either the mega-church or Emergent church movements deal with leaders who refuse to use the word sin for fear it will “turn off” the “seeker.” McLaren despises the word sin, Osteen promises not to use it as does Schuller. (The young Schuller might use it of his father now that dad has fired him.) Hybels knew that if he used it, unchurched Harry and Harriet would walk out. So we have more than one generation of evangelical who must ask the question: Saved from what?

When you combine this with the fact that secularists now have a longer existence and have led their own life since the beginning of the New Testament Church, is it any wonder that our culture is hurting? The world has done more than establish a beachhead. In Thomas Sowell’s words, the barbarians are inside the gates. Life inside the gates is described by Bavinck this way: “A society had been formed which was full of intricate interests.”[5] Indeed. The territory had been marked off. Christ claimed all and everything as his, but man’s autonomous culture was not going to leave without a fight. Therefore, simply showing the culture that we’ve been to the latest avant garde movie or play or read the latest controversial book on the New York Times bestseller list isn’t going to cut it. Besides, all we do in such instances is to affirm that our IQs might be in the double digits and that, like many secularists, we need a therapist to care for our neuroses.

So, says Bavinck, when Christianity appeared on the scene there was already an established order, the arts and sciences had been practiced and perfected, morals and habits had assumed a fixed form, conquests had been undertaken, and the United Chariot Workers union was already in place. The economy was good and the three largest chariot manufacturers didn’t need a bailout. The Gospel found itself in this type of setting. “And thus the question was inevitably raised how the relations between the two should be adjusted.”[6] That is precisely the question that demands a clear and in depth answer today.

Bavinck is aware that this question may be put in various forms because of its importance and extent, but, he adds, “the problem always remains the same.”[7] Furthermore, how Christians engage culture is not a merely theoretical matter that belongs to scientific or philosophical thought, but rather one that “forces itself upon every man in his every day life.”[8] Therefore, Christians are to be involved as much as possible in the arts, but simultaneously he must realize that engaging the culture is a 24/7, mundane task. That being the case, the primary step for any Christian in this sphere is to be thoroughly grounded in and acquainted with the contents of Scripture. It is conceivable that Christians—especially in this time when we have neglected the arts for so long—can become so enamored of culture and can look so kindly upon it that they fail “to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession.”[9]

This comes from a man who was very involved in culture as a teacher and equivalent to a U.S. Senator as Reformed dogmatician. Bavinck was at the forefront of the rise of Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands and who lectured at the Theological Seminary in Kampen on both Dogmatics and Reformed Ethics. It is unwise, according to Bavinck, to go off half-cocked or with some half-baked notion of engaging the culture. First and foremost, he challenges us to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession. That simple statement clears up a great deal for the serious Christian. As we shall see in subsequent installments, this did not mean turning one’s back on culture or becoming 21st century ascetics. Next time, Lord willing, we’ll see how the relationship of Church and culture worked itself out in Anabaptism and among the Reformers.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Wijsbegeerte der Openbaring, (Kok: Kampen, 1908); E.T.: The Philosophy of Revelation. For these articles, I will naturally use the English translation.

[2] Klaas Schilder, Christus en Cultuur, (Jochem Douma, [ed.]), (Franeker: T. Wever, 19785), p. 8: “Het problem van de relatie tussen Christus en de cultuur raakt rechtstreeks de grondvragen van het christelijk denken and handelen.”

[3] Ibid., 9-10. Also comp. Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959).

[4] Bavinck, TPR, 242.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 243.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 244.



Blogger wordsmith said...

It is unwise, according to Bavinck, to go off half-cocked or with some half-baked notion of engaging the culture.

Ha! That sure seems to be the direction in which most of us evangelicals are heading, sad to say. Half-baked notions do more damage than total inaction. Some people seem to think that there's never enough time to do it right, but there's always enough time to do it over. The thing is, though, that half-baked notions act like an inoculation and hinder the real McCoy from being effective. You know, the road to hell and all that stuff.

Looking forward to the rest of your series here.

9:26 PM  
Blogger IceDawg said...

This morning I was reading Deuteronomy for my devotions and I thought there are some verses in chapter 12 that speak to this issue. Moses is talking to Israel about the nations who are going to be driven out before them in the promised land and talks about their idols:

4 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. 5 But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; 6 there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. 7 There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:4-7)

So our church life is not to be guided by the culture around us. We are to be His people according to His requirements.

Instead, I'm left shaking my head after talking to a leader in a "cutting-edge" PCA church who is hosting art events. I don't have a problem with that perse, but when I hear that they allow the unbelieving artists almost carte blanche expression I ask myself, "Who is leading who here." When the church allows content offensive to God to be displayed on their walls, or read from their podium (which I know there has been at this church) it has lost its way.

Anticipating objections, I'm not saying that Christians need to be aloof from the world and never be involved with the "unpretty" people in the world. The book of Acts shows lots of people telling the Good News to all sorts of folks. Individuals are shown to be active in their day-to-day relationships with this kind of work. Acts does not show the church as a body doing any such thing. Instead, we see congregations devoted to living according to God's instructions (Acts 2:42).

Even if you make a case for the care of the poor, widow and orphan for the church, that is a long way from encouraging offensive art by displaying it your building. We ought to be seeking to build a nation of Christians not a Church of secularists.

8:44 AM  
Blogger West Coast PCA said...

"When I hear that they allow the unbelieving artists almost carte blanche expression I ask myself, "Who is leading who here."'

That's called being "missional." But in my experience, that whole concept seems to be wildly broad. There are many good things I see happening in the name of being missional and, as you said, hosting an art event may fall into that category. But "missional" (or even better, "engaging your missional context") also seems to be a smoke screen to cover a multitude of practices ranging from unwise to blatantly unbiblical. So when I hear that a church is being missional, I'm not sure how to take it.

It seems like we need to define "missional" just as much as we need to define "engaging the culture."

9:09 PM  
Blogger IceDawg said...


I thought being missional was proclaiming the gospel of salvation for the forgiveness of exactly the kinds of sins these churches are encouraging by displaying them? Scripture doesn't seem very vague about what that means. When the apostle Paul was being "missional" in the Greek araeopagus (spelling?) in Acts 17 he ends it with a call of repentance. I wonder if these "missional" activities include that. In fact, from talking to these folks, I know that they don't. I trust they are well intentioned, but they are also going the wrong direction of compromise.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

So far you are making my point that when churches claim to be "engaging the culture," they are, as often as not, compromising on doctrines that are at the heart of the gospel for the sake of reaching the artist or unbelieving community. In our Presbytery, we have yet to have this kind of discussion and every time it's suggested that we have it, someone says, "This is not the place to have that kind of discussion." It isn't? Why not? If Presbytery isn't the place to have it, where is? Name the venue and I'll show up.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Morris Brooks said...

David Wells, in his book The Courage to be Protestant, addresses and identifies what the modern church means when it talks about "engaging the culture. He also points out its shortcomings and where it has gotten off of the evangelical bus.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Morris Brooks said...

Also, Ron you can delete this if you have rules against this for your blog, I posted some thoughts and some questions last year on what it means to engage the culture. You can find it at

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

David Wells is one of the finest cultural analysts around. I'm honored to edit his "Festschrift" this year. What makes Wells so attractive is his balanced approach and clear writing style. He also thinks McLaren is out to lunch and that no serious student of culture should pay any attention to him or the emergent tribe.
I look forward to reading your questions.

9:38 AM  
Blogger J. R. Miller said...

"As Christians engage in “the arts” they will not jettison, compromise, or neglect good theology in the process"

I love Francis Schaeffer's treatment of art how he connects it with the world of theology and philosophy.

Schaeffer's desire to see arts recaptured for the use of teaching God's truth has been influential in my starting a non-profit called, "Restoring the Arts"

11:27 PM  

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