Volume 8, Issue 2: Disputatio
Christ and Culture
Douglas Wilson and Michael Horton
Is Christ Lord over all things, including culture? Are we called to seek to understand
every aspect of life to the glory of God, i.e., from a distinctively Christian
perspective? Or since the Fall, has God declared some areas of life culturally
common between Christ and idolatry? Does the Gospel teach us about anything other
than the inner state of the regenerate and the Church?
In the following interchange, the editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Wilson,
and Michael Horton discuss the above issues regarding Christ and culture.
Michael Horton is an author and Visiting Professor at Reformed Seminary (Orlando),
is President of Christians United for Reformation (CURE). Educated at Biola University
and Westminster Theological Seminary, Michael Horton is a Ph.D candidate at Wycliffe
Hall, Oxford. He is the author of numerous books including Beyond Culture Wars.
DW: Christianity is not a culture but rather a faith, a religion. A popular
misrepresentation of the faith seeks to identify a particular culture with the
Christian faith. Nevertheless, it remains true that every culture is a particular
religion externalized. The only choice is between false religion externalized
and true religion externalized. Our Lord taught us to pray saying, "Thy will be
done on earth as it is in heaven," not "Thy will be done in heaven when we get
there." Christianity is not a culture in the same way that Christianity is not
a particular individual -- nevertheless, Christ saves and transforms individuals.
After all, the task of the Great Commission is to disciple the nations.
MH: Beyond the obvious examples of secularized religious battles (Beirut in
the 70's, Bosnia in the 90's), the influence of religion in shaping culture is
undeniable. Jaki, Polkinghorne and other philosophers of science have pointed
out, for instance, the dependence of the rise of modern science on a Christian
subculture. And yet, religion consists of both natural and special revelation.
God has made Himself at least partially known -- as Creator, Law-Giver, and Judge,
in the things He has made, both inanimate objects and rational, observant subjects.
Totally depraved sinners are even capable of conforming externally, however fallible,
to the civil righteousness outlined in the Second Table. The question, therefore,
is not whether all cultures are religions externalized, but whether natural revelation
offers sufficient common ground for shared values in a pluralistic society.
DW: Daniel in Babylon and Paul in Rome both show that believers can function
in a society guided by natural revelation; this shows the legitimate authority
of such realms is not thereby set aside. The authorities that exist are established
by God whether or not they know His proper name. The question is not whether
this can happen, but whether Christians should be content with it. The civil
realm can be sub-Christian and remain a true civil realm. But should Christians
work to keep it sub-Christian? Certainly the Bible does not require this of us.
And if we base our civil involvement on natural revelation only, where does natural
revelation teach or require pluralism?
MH: Certainly Christians should not work "to keep [the civil realm] sub-Christian," but
what does it mean to say that a particular culture is "Christian"? Since the Fall,
man has been forced to live "east of Eden," and the kingdom of God coexists with,
but is never identified with a geopolitical state other than Israel. For those
of us who believe that the church is God's true Israel, the New Testament eliminates
even the present nation-state of Israel from the title to God's kingdom. Therefore,
to speak of a Christian culture is to confuse creation and redemption, Christ's
kingdom and the kingdoms of this world that will not be made Christ's kingdom
until the end of the age. However, to speak of a culture that is influenced,
shaped, or diminished in the extent to which Christian convictions dominate,
is quite reasonable and as believers work out the implications of sound theology,
the cultural effect should be remarkable.
DW: But what should we call that remarkable effect? Why not Christian culture?
To say a culture is Christian is not to say it will go to Heaven when it dies,
or that it is identified with the Church. In any culture, the final authority
is the god of that culture. Consequently, most cultures are idolatrous. Are you
arguing that all cultures are necessarily idolatrous? Or is it possible for the
living God to be acknowledged in the civil realm? Suppose that our civil ruler
decreed that we were required to "tremble and fear before the God of Daniel." Would
sound theology require us to rebuke our modern Darius for not seeing the
importance of pluralism?
MH: Most individuals as well as cultures are idolatrous, and it is even quite
possible for cultural Christians to substitute ideological idols for the one
true God, as Bismarck, many Victorians and contemporary Christian activists illustrate.
How does a nation of many faiths express a single religious commitment in public
terms? Taking public school prayer as an example, how can we encourage this activity
without simultaneously countenancing idolatry: worship of the unknown god? Not
only is the God I worship not the god of most contemporary Americans; He is not
the god of many of the founding fathers -- a benign deity who has neither revealed
Himself infallibly in Scripture nor redeemed anyone in Christ. It is not a particular
God -- the triune Creator who is known only in the person and work of His incarnate
Son, but the deity of civil religion. If an American president commanded the
citizens to worship the God of Daniel this week, he or she could just as easily
command us to worship the god of Shirley MacLain or Louis Farakahn the next.
Only if Christianity equals moral enlightenment can we be satisfied with calling
a culture "Christian."
DW: If the civil authority did this, we should follow Daniel -- approve him
when he does right and refuse to worship his idols when he does wrong. We must
not tell him that he has a right to his idol as long as it is the idol of formal
agnosticism. We may not commend him if he does anything less than abandon all
his idols. If human cultures can never be Christian, they are necessarily idolatrous.
But we agree that Christians should participate in culture. Should we make our
peace with any idols? Or do we fight with just some, like the civil god of Americanism,
and leave others alone, like the civil god of pluralism?
MH: There is a false dilemma throughout this argument, it seems: either we must
have a Christian culture or an idolatrous culture, and this means that the Christian's
involvement will intentionally further one or the other. This is pointed up in
the very beginning of this disputation when Mr. Wilson writes, "The only choice
is between false religion externalized and true religion externalized." In this
thinking, the Christian knows God's mind on nearly every piece of legislation
because it can be directly linked to an implicit, if not explicit, aspect of
a biblical worldview. I do not have this kind of confidence that the Bible affords
us with specific, nonidolatrous policy positions on every conceivable issue.
But since the Fall, culture is common, not a holy, activity -- with the one notable
exception of Israel in the Old Testament. If, as Jesus said, God "sends rain on
the just and the unjust alike" (Matt. 5), this period between the two advents
is dominated by God's reign over the world in common grace and ove r His kingdom
in saving grace. It seems to me that Mr. Wilson has confused these two kingdoms.
Total depravity does not eradicate the imago Dei. Thus, with Luther, I would
have no difficulty concluding, "I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than
by an unwise Christian." Though an idolater in "things above," he may be wise in
DW: You object to what you considered a false dilemma but conclude with your
own. When you echo Luther, preferring wise Turk to unwise Christian, you make
no reference to the other possibilities unwise Turk and -- wise Christian. From
the four , which should Christians prefer? As for the two kingdoms, does God
in special revelation require anything for the common realm? Or are we left
to educated guesswork just like the pagans? If the former, how are you not advocating
the historic Reformed view of culture? If the latter, where do we learn from
our mute king that we should be pluralists? Does God require pluralism? If
so, where? If not, then why should we?
MH: We see in the Noahic covenant the stipulation that governs the common
realm: Human life, created in God's image, is to be protected by the temporal
sword. While the Ten Commandments reflect God's personal character and are, therefore,
written on the human conscience, they were published to and for Israel. As Calvin
insists, this charter was not intended as a covenant for any nation, but for
God's chosen people. It is dangerous to simply insert America or any other nation
in the position of Israel, since the nature of God's kingdom in the New Covenant
is spiritual rather than geo-political. I have not presented a false dilemma,
since my argument obviously assumes that if one had the opportunity of voting
for a wise Christian, so much the better! However, common grace is a sufficient
basis for building culture and the kingdoms of this world. We ought to be thankful
to God for His providential sovereignty in restraining wickedness and for giving
good gifts of intelligence, creativity, justice and civil righteo usness even
to those who despise His name, whether within a so-called Christian nation or
in any other.
DW: If I have understood you correctly, the American people (and all other
nations as well) are bound by the stipulations of the Noahic covenant. But this
means that not only must we refrain from murder, and punish murderers, we must
do so because we are in perpetual covenant with the God of Noah, as revealed
in Genesis 9:9. This commits us as a nation to the proposition that this portion
of Genesis 9 is the Word of God, and that as a people we must submit to it. Would
you oppose laws which self-consciously built on this foundation? "We the people
of Illinois, descendants of our father Noah, and in covenant with his God . .
MH: The Noahic covenant, although never ratified to our knowledge by the pagan
nations listed in the following table (Gen. 10), was and remains in effect because
of God's determination. If, following the Westminster Confession, one insists
upon the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, common grace and creation
ordinances must never be confused with the kingdom of Christ. Unbelievers are
judged by the Law written on their conscience (Rom. 2:12), and they are responsible
not only to embrace the Noahic stipulations, but to obey the whole moral law
in letter and spirit without fault. If your point is that everyone of every nation
ought to repent and accept the saving message of Christ, I agree and insist
upon the proclamation of the Law and Gospel for that purpose, but this is a spiritual,
not a civil, ministry. I worry that many who rightly reject dispensationalism's
discontinuity-orientation between the Old and New Covenants fail to recognize
the genuine differences. Are you simply suggesting that America is entitled to
the same promises as Israel, if the former will simply accept the stipulations
of the moral, civil, and (why not?) cerermonial laws of the Old Covenant?
DW: We agree the proclamation of the Law and Gospel is a spiritual matter and
not political. But the successful preaching of the gospel does have clear civil
ramifications. One of the first ramifications is seen by the magistrate who
has responded to your call to repent and believe. He is faced with a very interesting
problem the next Monday morning, vis. what does he do now, and why? Certainly
at the very least he would have to submit to the stipulations of the Noahic covenant,
which you have asserted includes the death penalty. This means an imposed biblical
morality. Christ is prince of our salvation; this does not mean He is prince
over nothing else.
We thank you for your willingness to discuss this important issue with us -- we
appreciate it greatly.