Engaging the What? (VI)
Note Well: This Ethos is out of sequence due to the fact that I was away in SC doing a conference. It is meant to precede VII. I hope this adequately explains the numbering. RG.
Culture and Religion
In the last installment, we took a quick peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture.” By way of review, he described them in the following manner: To the first circle “belong all those activities of man for the production and distribution of material goods, such as agriculture, cattle-rearing, industry, and trade.” In the current discussions in the PCA and the larger evangelical community, this “circle” gets precious little “face time.” This aspect is the step-child in the sense that it wouldn’t seem very trendy to open a new church plant and instead of the jazz quartet and art exhibit there was an exhibit of a chart showing production and distribution. The cultured despisers would not be attracted.
The second circle “includes all that labor whereby man realizes objectively his ideals of the true, the good, and the beautiful, by means of literature and science, justice and statecraft, works of beauty and art, and at the same time works out his own development and civilization.” Bavinck is convinced that this second circle presents us with nothing new, but rather “has existed at all times, from the moment when man appeared on the earth and sought satisfaction of his manifold needs by labor.” What is noteworthy here is the emphasis on justice and statecraft in addition to literature, science, aesthetics, and art. Getting to know Bavinck somewhat, it should not surprise us that this Renaissance Man wrote a very informative article entitled “Of Beauty and Aesthetics.”
According to Bavinck, it is noteworthy that “from its first origin this culture has been closely connected with religion.” It would be difficult to make a case that this is explicitly the case today, unless we were prepared and willing to engage in a prolonged apologetic about the rampant religiosity in modern man. More often than not you hear something like this these days: “I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual.” Since few want to be known as a bigot or as someone who is not “PC” we keep our mouths closed and allow this ludicrous statement to pass. In other words, we allow ourselves to be bullied by elitist and activist ideologues, who have rammed a “PC” culture down our throats. They don’t want Christianity rammed down their throats, but they don’t mind ramming their culture down our throats. It’s called “toleration” and we are both complicit and culpable in allowing it to happen.
If Bavinck is correct that in the earliest times there was a correlation between culture and religion, when did the change; the paradigm shift occur that has given us the mess we’re in today? He writes, “It was not till the eighteenth century that culture was raised to a power which emancipated itself from the Christian religion and the whole ancient world-view, and sought to become an absolutely new, modern culture.” Such a phenomenon leads Bavinck to conclude that “It can, at the most, be contended that our specifically present-day culture is in conflict with religion and Christianity.” If Bavinck is correct—and I am convinced that he is—, then modern Christians should be quite circumspect when aspiring to “engage the culture” since there is a “conflict” between Christianity and a lion’s share of the culture.
Both Bavinck and Kuyper spoke openly about how the Christian had to approach culture with a biblical notion of the “antithesis.” Unfortunately, few today wish to assert this truth and that much in the Christian faith requires us to be countercultural. In the last installment, I called this the notion of “antithesis.” Surely, there is much in our culture that we may use with thanksgiving. Nevertheless, there is also a place for biblical discernment to kick in and it requires some degree of spiritual maturity to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly. The “discernment factor” has plummeted among modern Christians to the point that David Wells can assert that in “this new way of ‘doing church,’ those who once stood aloof from the older liberalism are now unwittingly producing a close cousin to it.” In terms of modern attempts to “engage culture,” Wells is convinced that the “new way” is clearly not the correct approach. What is the main “fly in the ointment” with the modern approach? According to Wells, many who attempt to “engage the culture” “are all operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology.”
By contrast, the Reformation took a totally different tack as the new work edited by Willem van ‘t Spijker clearly demonstrates. How did the Reformers approach those who were virtually devoid of any understanding of the Bible and of biblical principles? First, they gladly reached back into history. Van ‘t Spijker writes, “The Catechism’s influence was particularly great because it fit in a unique way into a centuries-old tradition of catechetical instruction. It continued to pass down the faith, commandments, and prayer by means of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.”
Second, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, who did not catechize, the Reformers gave the Church a “booklet of instruction” that was intended to be both a confession as well as a road map for the implementation of the Reformation. When we pause and recall that one of the guiding principles of the Reformation was sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone), we understand that the Heidelberg Catechism “presents doctrine based on Scripture in an accessible way…” Its purpose was and is to educate the Church. Ironically, far too many today shy away from the catechism, whether it is the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Standards, and with a view to the latter, I’m talking about far too many in the PCA. Instead of seeing in them a rich tradition to be used to educate the Church, they prefer to take pot shots at how antiquated it is. All who are serious Christians may be thankful that the Heidelberg Catechism took a very different approach.
Third, the Reformers unanimously desired to aid the godly “to teach their children at home, at school, and in the church, the fear of the Lord.” Their aim; their primary objective “was to prevent the collapse of church and society as a consequence of people’s sinful nature.” It doesn’t take much to note that rather than not giving untaught Christians or unbelievers anything doctrinal or “too heavy,” the Reformers believed that doctrine based on Scripture was precisely what the “unchurched” and “untaught” needed. They came to their conclusions from Scripture itself.
Fourth, the Reformers presented a scriptural remedy to culture at large as well as to the Church. Van ‘t Spijker explains, “Under the papacy, people were brought up without a catechism. This shortcoming had to be corrected through instruction in doctrine, and the church order prescribed the way in which this teaching was to be carried out. The Catechism was an instruction book par excellence, and its purpose was to encourage people to participate consciously in the life of the church.” Even if you reject the Reformers’ premises, they are worthy of consideration.
The approach today is quite different. Even though many of the postmoderns and even those Christians who analyze postmodernism (almost to death) would have us believe that we are dealing with a phenomenon that has never been encountered before, this notion runs counter to biblical truth (Eccl. 1:9). Even in Bavinck’s day, there were some who were claiming that their era was “the unique event.” Truly, there were a number of antithetical facets when one compares Bavinck’s time with the centuries preceding the 19th century. Simultaneously, however, Bavinck reminds us that “this antithesis is not absolute.”
There is a slight modification between Bavinck’s time and ours. He writes, “All our society, family, labor, vocation, state-craft[GPC1] , legislation, morals, habits, arts, sciences, are permeated still with the Christian spirit.” While this might have been true of Holland at the front end of the 20th century, it might not be equally true of American culture and Christianity in the first decade of the 21st century. In America, the church has long since abandoned any serious attempt to “leaven everything” and has moved into the arena of entertainment—by and large—rather than into serious confrontation with and contribution to culture. In a very real sense, the modern Christian church is guilty of capitulating to culture and having very little of substance to offer. But not every remnant of Christianity has disappeared, even though there exists a realistic threat of Christianity’s influence in culture disappearing. The opponents of Christianity continue to refuse to acknowledge that the only way they can make sense out of life and culture is to borrow capital from the Christian faith. Only in so doing can the pagan world make sense of anything. Moreover, the influence of Christianity in America continues even though secularists reject the truth of God. This is the historical case as Bavinck well knew. “Thought has often to a great extent emancipated itself from Christianity; but life goes quietly on, and is continually fed from the sources of the past.”This being so, what are Christians, what is the PCA doing to ensure that there will be a spiritual legacy from the past that will have any influence on future generations? Quite honestly, we waste too much Christian and PCA money on sheer nonsense and call it “outreach.” Do I have to get body piercings and “tats” to reach out to modern men and women? Is asking an atheist how we should “do church” evangelicalism or just being dumb? The answer is simple. When a pastor (PCA in this case) states that he will not talk to anyone who will not drink a beer with him, what spiritual message does that send? Many of us are convinced that there is nothing unbiblical about having an “adult beverage,” but are equally convinced that people are free not to drink. More next time, Lord willing.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (John Bolt [ed.] & Harry Boonstra & Gerrit Sheeres [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), pp. 245-260.
 David Wells, Above All Earthly P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 265.
 Willem van ‘t Spijker, “The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Willem van ‘t Spijker (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (
 Ibid., 90.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 93.
 Bavinck, TPR, 250.
 Ibid., 251.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture