Read Part 1.
Except for the hypothetical castaway on a South Seas island, everybody lives in a culture. The creation of culture is hardwired into human beings. They encounter the natural world. They encounter other people. They bring their most fundamental convictions about the nature of reality to bear upon these encounters. The result is a culture, and the qualities of that culture will differ somehow from those of every other culture.
This description of culture is presumptuously brief. From a Christian point of view, it is also theologically deficient. Not false, to be sure—every word of it rings true to Scripture. Nevertheless, more needs to be said.
One of the mistakes that some theologians (and non-theologians, too) make is to try to judge culture in general rather than to evaluate specific cultures. One analyst may suggest that culture shows evidence of divine creativeness, and therefore it is good. Another may argue that it displays the marks of human depravity, and it is therefore bad. Both fail to recognize that every culture is a complex phenomenon that will be powerfully shaped by a number of influences. Some of these influences can be classified under five theological categories.
The first of these theological categories is meticulous Providence. Christians believe that Providence is active in all human affairs, so it should come as no surprise that Providence is reckoned as an influence upon cultures. The problem is that Providence, by definition, works behind the scenes. Looking backwards, Christians simply recognize that Providence ordained whatever actually happened.
So what is the relevance of a doctrine of Providence to the discussion of culture? The apostle Paul hints at this when he suggests that, though God has made all humans of one blood, He has “determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Humans find themselves thrown into a situation. They exist at a particular point in history. They occupy a particular geographical space, one that confronts them with unique circumstances. One tribe develops in the jungles of Amazonia. Another flourishes on the shores of the Thames. One exists before the invention of metal implements, while another invents personal computers. None of these things is merely accidental. God has made choices, and these choices affect the cultures that will develop.
Certainly this is for the best. Different aspects of human nature are brought to the surface by different circumstances. If God’s purpose is to have a multiplicity of cultures all reflecting His glory in different ways, then the multifaceted nature of the Imago Dei must be nourished under different situations. Christians must always remember that even the worst of disasters—pestilences, droughts, conflagrations, tempests, invasions, and deluges—are subject to the decrees of an all-wise Providence.
The second theological category that influences cultures is human sin and depravity. While humans are created in the image of God and meant for communion with God, they have universally rejected their Creator and declared their independence of Him. Since all cultures are religious in nature, and since all humans are idolaters, every culture will necessarily exhibit elements of distortion.
Romans 1 articulates a variety of ways in which idolatry shows up in human beings. Many or most of these manifestations become possible only within social relationships. In other words, through its effects upon individuals, depravity also damages cultures. Paul’s subsequent discussion shows that even relatively moral and even religious cultures can still put their depravity on display.
Humans are inveterate creators of culture. They are also inveterate idolaters—indeed, as Augustine notes, the human heart is a factory of idols [Edit: the idea is Augustine’s, the wording Calvin’s]. Since cultures are always created by idolaters, their idolatry will always be expressed in the cultures that they create. So profound is human depravity that no culture on this side of the eschaton is exempt from its influences.
This is not to suggest that all cultures will manifest an identical degree of debauchery. Just as individual humans can sink to greater or lesser depths of wickedness, so can cultures. All cultures contain some expression of depravity, but some cultures give themselves to its celebration. The inability to judge one culture as worse and another as better is as morally obtuse as the inability to judge one person as worse and another as better. The apostle intended no irony when he repeated the jibe that “All Cretans are liars, lazy gluttons, and vicious animals.”
A third theological category that affects all cultures is divine judgment. In a general sense every culture rests under the judgment of God because of its sinfulness and depravity. In a more specific sense, each culture arises from a specific act of judgment.
That act occurred at Babel. Prior to Babel, the entire human race was one—one language and, evidently, one culture. Whether a diversity of cultures would have arisen in a perfect world, or whether they would have arisen without the confusion of tongues, is an interesting but unanswerable question. What we do know is that the cacophony of human languages and people groups actually arises from the judgment of Babel.
The judgment of Babel is still in effect. Language changes. People groups change. Cultures change. The ongoing fluidity of culture is a continuing mark of God’s judgment, and it is something that every culture endures.
Babel was more than judgment, however. It was also mercy. The virtue of Babel is that it prevented humans from accomplishing the evil that they might otherwise have achieved. While it was a judgment, it was also a restraint upon the progress of human corruption. In like manner, the ongoing diversity of culture is both a token of God’s judgment and of His mercy.
God speaks a word of judgment against all human cultures. No culture anywhere has proven to be truly righteous. Inasmuch as God has concluded all humans under sin, He necessarily judges all cultures. This does not imply, however, that all cultures are under equal degrees of wrath, nor does it mean that nothing in any culture is good. What it does mean is that no culture, civilization, or society can claim to embody the fullness of Christian truth and virtue, nor can it claim to bear the stamp of God’s unmixed approval.
The fourth influence that shapes cultures is common grace. Negatively, common grace includes whatever secondary means God employs to limit or restrain the temporal effects of human sin and depravity. One of the best examples of common grace is God’s institution of human government. As ordained by God, governments serve primarily the negative purpose of restraining evil in the world.
On the positive side, common grace includes the variety of gifts through which God manifests His goodness. He sends His rain upon the just and the unjust. The blessings of wealth and health, of friendship and family, are instances of God’s grace. So is general or natural revelation, perhaps the most important feature of common grace.
Because of God’s common grace, every culture manifests virtues as well as vices. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine a culture that should be dismissed as entirely corrupt or worthless. If such an aberrant culture exists, it is the exception and not the rule: the culture of the insane asylum, perhaps, or the culture of a death camp. One suspects that even under those extreme and contrived circumstances, such cultures would retain some element of God’s common grace. Whatever the exceptions, ordinary cultures retain at least some grasp of truth and some ability to reflect the glory of God.
Even in the best cases, however, the problem is that unrighteous humans suppress those elements of truth that they possess. Because they are sinners, they take the obvious glory of God and attribute it to idols. Consequently, Christians should be on their guard against a too-naïve appropriation of cultural phenomena with the assumption that they are capable of bearing the Christian message or Christian virtues. Still, because of the presence of common grace, every culture must retain some possibility of an initial understanding of God’s justice and mercy. Every culture also retains the potential to be expanded in order to incorporate a more complete embrace of the Christian message.
Every culture is affected by four theological categories. These are meticulous Providence, human depravity, divine judgment, and common grace. In addition to these four, some cultures are also influenced by a fifth theological category: special grace.
For this discussion, “special grace” should be taken in a slightly broader sense than is usual. It includes the reception of both special revelation and the gospel message. Some—perhaps most—cultures never even hear of special grace. They remain unaffected by it. Of those to which special grace comes, a greater or lesser proportion of people may respond. In no culture do all people recognize special revelation, and in no culture do all people receive the gospel.
Nevertheless, when a sufficient proportion of people within a culture do appropriate all or part of special grace, it begins to exert a powerful influence upon the culture itself. This is unavoidable, for human beings are inveterate creators of culture, and to create a culture means to incorporate the perspectives of one’s religion into one’s encounter with both the natural and social worlds. Such people will discover or create cultural vehicles for the expression of Christian truth. If a culture remains under their influence long enough, it may become “Christianized.”
A Christianized culture is certainly not one in which every person is saved. It is not even one in which most people understand the gospel message. Perhaps true believers will be only a small minority. It is a culture, however, in which important categories of Christian truth have so come to dominate the culture that a generally Christian view of reality is widely shared. Christian virtues become the norm or standard by which conduct is judged.
Is such a Christianized society and culture possible? Could it ever exist? The answer to that question should be obvious. It already has existed. Its ghost haunts the civilization of the West. Indeed, in some places it is only now breathing its last gasp.
All cultures display some mixture of influences from these five theological categories. The degree to which each category influences a particular culture will vary. Some cultures display greater effects of depravity and judgment, while others exhibit greater effects of grace. The one is not so bad as to be worthless, and the other is not so virtuous as to escape judgment. One must never suppose, however, that all cultures are created equal or that they are equally capable of receiving and expressing Christian truth. Nothing in Scripture indicates that.
Glorying in the Cross; or, Not Ashamed of Christ Crucified
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
At thy command, our dearest Lord,
Here we attend thy dying feast;
Thy blood like wine adorns thy board,
And thine own flesh feeds every guest.
Our faith adores thy bleeding love,
And trusts for life in one that died;
We hope for heav’nly crowns above
From a Redeemer crucified.
Let the vain world pronounce it shame,
And fling their scandals on the cause;
We come to boast our Saviour’s name,
And make our triumphs in his cross.
With joy we tell the scoffing age
He that was dead has left his tomb,
He lives above their utmost rage,
And we are waiting till he come.