Engaging the What?
Revelation and Culture
In the academic year 1908/1909, Dr. Herman Bavinck delivered the L. P. Stone Lectures at Princeton. 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.” 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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
 Herman Bavinck, Wijsbegeerte der Openbaring, (Kok: Kampen, 1908); E.T.: The Philosophy of Revelation. For these articles, I will naturally use the English translation.
 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.”
 Ibid., 9-10. Also comp. Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959).
 Bavinck, TPR, 242.
 Ibid., 243.
 Ibid., 244.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture