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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 "things below."
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.

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