Engaging the What? (IV)
The Modern Church’s Infatuation with Culture
In his Stone Lectureship series at Princeton, Herman Bavinck declared, “If we are to speak of the relation which Christianity bears to culture, we must first of all give a clear account of what we understand by culture, and of precisely the kind of culture Christianity is to form a contrast to.” And therein exists the problem of a lion’s share of modern ecclesiastical discourse. Discussions are neither clear nor precise, but tend to flit about the accoutrements or forms, without discussing, debating, or disagreeing or agreeing with its contents.
Back in 1959, Henry Van Til commented that “Culture is not something neutral, without ethical or religious connotation. Human achievement is not purposeless but seeks to achieve certain ends, which are either good or bad. Since man is a moral being, his culture cannot be a-moral.” Van Til began his book with the observation that “The Christian is in the world, but not of the world. This constitutes the basis of the perennial problem involved in the discussion of Christian culture.”
One of our problems in the 21st century is that few are stepping forward with a clear and precise definition of what this animal is that many are suggesting Christians “engage.” Bavinck supplies us with a simple, starting working definition to get us moving on the right track. “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.” His historical investigation lead him to explain that the word “culture” was a product of the eighteenth century and arose concomitantly with the related terms “civilization,” “enlightenment,” “development,” and “education.” Each of these terms lent themselves to an understanding of “general cultivation, improvement, and [they] always presuppose an object which must be improved.”
What is that object that must be improved? What is its name? In our time, Mother Earth might be appropriate. In Bavinck’s day, from a secular standpoint, it was usually called “nature,” but in the Christian scheme of things it is called “creation.” It ought to be clear that all three of these names conjure up very different meanings of life and a totally different life and worldview. Contrary to so many of our modern ecclesiastical leaders who desire to make “church” comfortable for the pagan, Bavinck’s desire was to engage the non-believer and to present what has come to be called the Neo-Calvinistic worldview. Both Bavinck and Kuyper were champions of all of life being formed and informed by Scripture. In that regard, both were active in politics, education, and a host of other related areas. Their occasional writings and speeches manifest a remarkably broad “Renaissance” approach to life. At the same time, however, they never considered jettisoning their distinctive Reformed way of life to achieve their goals in culture.
That is due, in part, to the fact that Bavinck analyzed “nature” from a twofold perspective. First, “it includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man,” but, second, it also includes “in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also.” What Bavinck means with this distinction is that “The faculties and powers which man possesses have not been acquired by him, but are given to him by God; they are a gift of nature, and these gifts are a means for cultivating the external world, as well as an object which must be cultivated.”
Culture, its norms, measures, and standards are not derived autonomously, but are given by God. It’s one thing for the non-Christian to be ignorant of this truth because of the blindness of unbelief, but it is quite another thing for Christians to be confused about it. For all who are “cultural warriors,” there is a standard, which is God’s standard and every individual is required to operate by God’s standard and they are held responsible for not living in accordance with that standard. They are, in a word, without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Lamech, Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain might have done something to advance “culture” as they understood it, but they misunderstood it in their desire to live autonomous lives and not to glorify God in it. The good folks in the land of Shinar suffered under the same delusion.
In 1941, Pitirim Sorokin wrote a thorough analysis of culture entitled, The Crisis of Our Age. His sentiments were echoed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he said, “Men have forgotten God.” Today, we seem to have forgotten that men have forgotten God. If the progressive secularists/humanists have long since forgotten God, modern evangelicals have long since forgotten the importance of biblical truth (read: doctrine) for modern Christians. There is little wonder, therefore, that many who call themselves evangelicals have either moved away from the faith altogether, or “will become full-blown liberals.” One of Wells’ theses is that essential doctrinal differences do not seem to matter much anymore today.
Doctrine has been supplanted by issues that are more tangible—at least ostensibly—such as eradicating global poverty and global warming. Bible studies that earlier presented scriptural truths have been put on the back burner for “Christian” yoga classes and other trendy fads. Movie discussions are a lot more interesting and less threatening than, say, Paul’s discussion of truth in Ephesians 1:3-14, for example. Wells summarizes the current situation/dilemma in this way: “When all is said and done today, many evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine—certainly they are when they ‘do church.’ Privately, no doubt, there are doctrines that are believed. But in church…well, that is different because, many think, doctrine is an impediment as we reach out to new generations.”
This attitude towards doctrine is bad enough, but, sadly, it is not the end of the story. Wells proceeds to explain that “In the last two or three decades evangelicals have discovered culture.” Now, many today might think that this is a good thing. The spate of books on the subject that ostensibly give us the impression that the cultural puzzle will be resolved for us are, as often as not, very superficial treatments of a very complex subject. American evangelicals like this very much, however. Just give them a glib 3, 5, or 7 steps to understanding culture and they are more than satisfied. Someone needs to write a culture Cliff’s Notes or Culture for Dummies. That way very little is asked or required of us. When Wells writes that evangelicals “discovered culture,” he reminds us that his words sound “more flattering than I intend…. A serious engagement with culture, though, is not what most evangelicals are about.”
If Wells is correct, what might evangelicals be doing when they say they are “engaging the culture”? Here is Wells’ assessment: “They want to know what the trends and fashions are that are ruffling the surface of contemporary life. They have no interest at all in what lies beneath the trends, none on how our modernized culture in the West shapes personal horizons, produces appetites, and provides us ways of processing the meaning of life…. Pragmatists to the last drop of blood, these evangelicals are now in the cultural waters, not to understand what is there, but to get some movement.” On an even more negative note, Wells states, “to be quite honest, the question is raised by only a few on the sidelines, and in many evangelical churches the question barely even makes sense.” Indeed.
Wells has placed his finger on the pulse of a great deal of modern ecclesiology. It is trendy, pragmatic, and only interesting to a select few, yet you’d think that it is the hot ticket item in every church; the issue upon which the Church stands or falls. Will the modern Church, will modern PCA churches build on the basis of sola Scriptura or sola cultura? This is a question that every church leader and every congregation should face squarely and review periodically. For that kind of spiritual self-examination involves the following questions: “What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity?”
In other words, will modern Christians increasingly abandon the notion of Christos Pantokrator (Christ the Ruler of All) and opt for what Sorokin called the sensate mentality; the mentality that is almost solely interested in things material in nature, the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous, and the self-indulgent? Lord willing, we’ll go further in our next issue.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), p. 27.
 Ibid., 15.
 Bavinck, TPR, 249.
 Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, (NY: Doubleday, 1941). The work went to a second edition in 1956.
 David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture