Does Cultural Christianity Advance the Gospel?

Missionaries tell us no. Convincing indigenous peoples that they don’t need to become western or American in order to trust Christ has been a chief insight of modern missions at least since 1900. But for some of the younger Calvinistically inclined folks, the push back against liberalism also now includes a defense of cultural Christianity.

Picking your spots for such a faith surely requires discretion since the riots in Philadelphia between nativist Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics had all the earmarks of cultural Christianity. Protestants expected the public schools to use the Bible to reinforce republican norms but Roman Catholics objected that the Protestant Bible was not neutral — it was not even the right one — the Douay version. Those riots were far more about politics and culture, but defenses of cultural Christianity tread gingerly around such episodes.

What is especially perplexing about Stephen Wolfe’s defense of cultural Christianity is not simply how he might make sense of its darker moments in the past, but even how it measures up to the New Testament. For instance, he starts with this assumption:

We should first acknowledge that the civil recognition, establishment, and privileging of Christianity was the received and standard view for most of Christian history, amongst most major Christian traditions, including many Protestants, and only recently has it been rejected by a majority of western Christians.

That may be true after 350 AD, but imagine Peter and Paul thinking the privileging of Christianity was the air they breathed when they were receiving inspired and infallible revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Wolfe later asserts in a way that would have left Paul scratching his head:

Put differently, the civil and ecclesiastical are the twin species of the same genus, Christian communion. The people of God submit to these mutually supporting, separate and independent administrations because Christ is both the Creator and Ruler of creation and the Mediator of eternal life. The Christian communion is not coterminous with ecclesiastical membership, but is rather the same people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical.

Again, that might describe Christendom at some point, but how does it make sense of the apostle’s warning to Corinthians against going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. (1 Cor. 6)

If the civil and ecclesiastical are mutually supporting, why is Paul so incensed with the Corinthians for going to court? Might it be that Paul and the early church had no idea about the state reinforcing Christian norms? That’s what persecution means, I believe.

Calvin’s commentary on this epistle also suggests that he, even though living at a time before 1789 when expectations for Christendom were still in place for all Christians except the Anabaptists, was not as convinced of the easy harmony between church and state. The reason is that the magistrate is an avenger and the church is an instrument of God’s love and mercy:

Those who aim at greater clearness in their statements tell us that we must distinguish between public and private revenge; for while the magistrate’s vengeance is appointed by God, those who have recourse to it do not rashly take vengeance at their own hand, but have recourse to God as an Avenger. This, it is true, is said judiciously and appropriately; but we must go a step farther; for if it be not allowable even to desire vengeance from God, then, on the same principle, it were not allowable to have recourse to the magistrate for vengeance.

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

Of course, Calvin is no Anabaptist. He knows the legitimacy of the magistrate and even the competency of unbelieving civil authorities. But he also senses in ways that critics of modern secular liberalism do not seem to that the purposes of church and state are distinct. One implication is that they are not necessarily harmonious. Especially if upholding the Christian ideal of love.

Perhaps cultural Christianity aspires to such an ideal. But chances are what Christian societies produce when the church is established is more on the order of manners or politeness than the spiritual fruit that comes with sanctification.

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11 thoughts on “Does Cultural Christianity Advance the Gospel?

  1. Cultural Roman Catholicism did not pan out:

    Archbishop Vigneron and the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit have faced the facts: Catholicism-by-osmosis – Catholicism passed along by the old ethno-cultural transmission belt – is over in America. In forty years, perhaps in twenty, no thirty-something Catholic in the United States is going to answer the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” with the answer, “Because my great-great-grandmother came from County Cork” (or Palermo, or Munich, or Cracow, or Guadalajara). The cultural air of the early twenty-first century is too toxic to be a carrier of the faith. The faith has to be proposed, and future generations must meet and embrace the Lord Jesus, if Catholicism in America is to flourish, being salt and light in the world and offering healing to a deeply wounded and fractured society.

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  2. Cultural biblical religion did not work out so well:

    17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

    22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

    “All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
    the grass withers and the flowers fall,
    25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

    And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Pet 1)

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  3. Stan Hauerwas—In the tradition in which I was educated, it was assumed that democratic politics was normative for Christians. Because I do not share that presumption, some think I have no politics I have no objection to calling theology “Christian,” but that description does not insure that theology that bears the name will be free of ideological perversion. “Christian” is no guarantee that theology can be safeguarded against being put at the service of political loyalties and practices that betray the Gospel. To ask, “What is the relationship between Christianity and politics?” – is to have failed to account for the political reality of the church.

    Hauerwas—The very way Niebuhr posed the problem of the relation of Christ to culture failed to be properly Christological, just to the extent that the Christ who is Lord is separated from Jesus of Nazareth. Niebuhr’s account of Christ as the exemplification of radical monotheism failed to give adequate expression to the full and genuine human existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth. That Christological mistake shaped the problematic character of Niebuhr’s typology because recognition of Jesus’s full humanity is necessary to recognize that Jesus himself is a “cultural reality.” As a result, the Christ of Christ and Culture was assumed to be alien to culture, thus creating the problematic that shaped Niebuhr’s book.

    Hauerwas–It was sin that determined Niebuhr’s fundamental perspective on the necessity of politics. Because we are sinners justice can be achieved only by degrees of coercion, as well as resistance to coercion. The alternative – anarchy or tyranny – was the kind of dualism Niebuhr often confidently declared were our only choices if we did not strive to sustain democratic life and institution For Niebuhr, Christians have a stake in democratic societies because, given the realism that the Christian understanding of sin requires, Christians know “that a healthy society must seek to achieve the greatest possible equilibrium of power, the greatest possible centers of power, the greatest possible social checks of the administration of power, and the greatest possible inner moral check on human ambition,

    http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/06/24/4032239.htm

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  4. D. G. Hart says: Cultural biblical religion did not work out so well:
    17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
    22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,
    “All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
    the grass withers and the flowers fall,
    25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
    And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Pet 1)

    wow, thanks for the reminders this am…..
    17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.
    22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

    -Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
    -The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person..
    -The sum of Your word is truth and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting
    -now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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  5. Stan does not trust the one time only penal substitution of Christ. He needs the sacramental presence mediated by the clergy of Christendom—he’s an Anglican now.

    Hauerwas—What I mean by the ‘secular’ is that many, including many who count themselves ‘religious’, are quite capable of living lives of practical atheism”, Secularization in that sense does not only take place outside the church.

    Hauerwas–There is no question that love between the persons of the Trinity is at the very heart of the Christian faith, but I think nothing is more destructive to the Christian faith than the current identification of Christianity with love. God in such a view becomes that great OK who tells us that we are OK and therefore, we are taught that we should tell one another we are OK.

    http://www.rug.nl/staff/h.j.paul/zdth2013.pdf

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  6. “But for some of the younger Calvinistically inclined folks, the push back against liberalism also now includes a defense of cultural Christianity.”

    If you asked those younger Calvinst, who’s had the most cogent solid arguments (i.e. who the best defender of the faith against modernism affronting the church) they would most likely with pride say Machen. It’s a shame they don’t realise that Machen was defending against that silliness as well. Cultural Christianity is a wholly different religion from true Christainty.

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  7. The way back to Reformation starts with the removal of this statue of Woodrow Wilson from my hometown.

    http://www.whsv.com/content/news/Birthday-celebration-happening-today-in-Staunton-for-our-nations-28th-president-408496095.html

    Sixteenth-century Geneva witnessed one of the most devastating waves of religious image-breaking in history. Incited by a group of charismatic theologians, mobs raged against objects associated with miracles, magic and the supernatural, destroying some of the city’s most precious pieces of Christian art.

    Invoking the Second Commandment, they denounced these works as idols, and as remnants of a rural, feudal and superstitious world.

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  8. In the fall of 1913, civil-rights leaders met with Wilson to express dismay over Jim Crow. Federal offices had begun separating workers by race. Wilson sent them off with vague assurances. In the next year, segregation did not improve; it worsened. By this time, numerous instances of workplace separation became well publicized. Among them, separate toilets in the U.S. Treasury and the Interior Department, a practice that Wilson’s Treasury secretary, William G. McAdoo, defended: “I am not going to argue the justification of the separate toilets orders, beyond saying that it is difficult to disregard certain feelings and sentiments of white people in a matter of this sort.”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/wilson-legacy-racism/417549/

    And then we go after James Buchanan, from Lancaster- Pa –that a-hole should have been deported, he was on the wrong side against Abraham Lincoln.

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  9. .
    Hauerwas—The very way of life Niebuhr posed the trouble of the relation back of Christ to polish failed to be properly Christological, just to the extent that the Christ who is Lord is detached from Jesus of Nazareth.

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