PMT 2016-065 by John M. Frame
Gentry note: God created man as a culture-building creature. The Bible frames in a Christian worldview that is designed to mold culture. Postmillennialists believe in the ultimate success of this culture-molding call. Therefore, we would do well to study the Christian influence on culture. Frame gives several helpful lectures on this whole question. This is his first one: “What Is Culture.”
My general topic is “Christianity and Culture.” I have five sessions with you. In the first, this morning, I’ll ask, “What is Culture?” Tomorrow we will discuss “Christ and Culture,” asking how the Bible describes the relation of Christ to all the cultures of the world. In the third lecture, “Christ and our Culture,” I will get more specific, applying what we’ve learned to the culture we live in, that of the present-day Western world. The fourth lecture, “Christians in our Culture” will discuss ourselves: how should we respond? How should Christians relate to present-day culture: do we flee, fight, set up an alternative, or what? The last lecture, “Culture in the Church,” will discuss what use the church can make of culture in its ministry: in its evangelism, its nurture of believers, and its worship.
So today, we begin by asking, “What is Culture?” Scripture does not contain a definition of culture. Indeed it does not contain definitions of any English words. So we have to understand how the English word is typically used among us, and then ask if that concept matches anything in the Bible, and what the Bible says about it. So we need to start with the use of the term culture in the English language. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin verb colere, which refers literally to agriculture, tilling the ground in order to grow things. By a slight extension, it applies also to growing or raising things that don’t begin in the ground. So equiculture is the growing of horses, aviculture the growing of birds.
Beyond these more literal uses, we use the term culture to describe anything that human beings work to achieve. So culture is not only what we grow, but also what we make, both with our hands and with our minds. It includes our houses, our barns, our tools, our cities and towns, our arts and crafts. It also includes the systems of ideas that we build up: science, philosophy, economics, politics, theology, history, and the means of teaching them, education: schools, universities, seminaries. Indeed, it includes all our corporate bodies and institutions: families, churches, governments. And culture also includes our customs, our games, sports, entertainment, music, literature, cuisine.
So definitions of culture tend to be fairly comprehensive. The Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism defined culture as “an integrated system of beliefs, values, customs, and institutions which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.” Ken Myers, in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, writes that culture is “a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom do not know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food.”
From definitions and descriptions of this sort, you might come away thinking that culture is everything. But that would be a mistake. We should make an important distinction between creation, which is one thing, and culture, which is something else. Creation is what God makes; culture is what we make. Now of course God is sovereign, so everything we make is also his in one sense. Or, somewhat better: creation is what God makes by himself, and culture is what he makes through us. The sun, moon and stars are not culture. The light and darkness are not culture. The basic chemistry of the earth, and the original genetic structure of life forms are not culture; they are God’s creation.
So our discussion leads us, of course, back to Genesis. Although we get our basic definition of culture from our understanding of the English language, we must as Christians go to Scripture if we are to understand what is most important about culture, namely what God thinks about it. In Genesis, we learn that God made the heavens and the earth and everything in them, including man and woman, in six days, however long those days may have been.
At the end of those six days, culture begins. Scripture doesn’t say that God makes or creates culture. Rather, he commands Adam and Eve to make it. Culture is not a creation, but a command, or, as it is often called, a “mandate.”
Greatness of the Great Commission (by Ken Gentry)
An insightful analysis of the full implications of the great commission. Impacts postmillennialism as well as the whole Christian worldview.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground,” Gen. 1:28.
I will refer to that command from time to time, as many other Reformed theologians have, as the “Cultural Mandate.” It is very important. The first human experience recorded in Scripture is the experience of hearing this command. This command governs everything Adam and Eve would do thereafter. It defines the very purpose of human life.
There are two elements to it: filling and rule. First, filling: Adam and Eve are to have children, grandchildren, and so on. They are not to stay in Eden. Gen. 2:24 says that a man will leave his father and mother and live with his wife, so there is to be a multiplication of homes, ultimately throughout the world.
As they fill the world, they are to rule it. They are not to be terrified by the natural world, like Dorothy and her friends, who cried about the lions and tigers and bears. Nor are they to be fearful of electrical storms, or earthquakes, or desert heat. Rather, they are to march through the world as kings and queens, taking possession of everything. They are to harness the animals, the heat and cold, the electricity and seismic energy, to serve their own purposes. That means development. Adam and Eve are not to leave the world untouched, as some radical environmentalists would prefer. Rather, they are to use the resources of God’s creation, to bring out the potential of the heavens and the earth, to facilitate their rule under God. They are to turn the creation into a culture, into a home for human society.
Of course, use is one thing, exploitation something else. Adam’s family had to remember that they were made of dust. They were not God; they were finite, not infinite. To live, they needed to eat. So although God gave them the right to rule the earth, in one sense they were subordinate to the earth. They needed the earth for their food and shelter. That’s another difference between creation and culture. God creates the world, but does not depend on the world at all. The world depends entirely on him. But in human life, there is mutual dependence between ourselves and the world. The world depends on us to fill and rule it, but we depend on the world for our very existence.
So, just as God told Adam to “take care” of the Garden (Gen. 2:15), Adam’s family was to “take care” of the earth. God wanted them both to use and to preserve. To use, but not to use up. So God later told Israel to rest the land after six years of cultivation. Man is to rule the earth, but also to serve it. He is to be a servant-king. That is the basis of biblical environmentalism.
So culture is what we make, and it begins right after creation, in response to God’s command. But once we see that, we must expand our definition of culture a bit. Culture is not only a fact, but a value. It is not only something that happens; it is something God desires, something God values.
Why did God give this command to Adam and Eve? Well, for the same reason, ultimately, that he does everything else: for his own glory. God’s glory is that beautiful, intense light that shines out from him when he makes himself visible to human beings. In the beginning, God created us as his “image and glory” (1 Cor. 11:7). So he wanted Adam’s family to spread that glory through the whole world. Adam was not to rule merely for himself, but for God, glorifying God in all he did. So culture is based on a divine command. Adam must develop culture because that is God’s desire. Culture is for God’s sake. So it is subject to God’s commands, God’s desires, God’s norms, God’s values.
So as we go back to look again at the various definitions of culture people have offered, we can see that there is almost always a value element, a normative element. In the Lausanne statement, for example, culture is not only crops, farms, and artifacts, but “an integrated system of beliefs, values, customs, and institutions.” Note especially the term “values.” And Lausanne goes on to say that this system is one “which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.” My own feeling is that the Lausanne statement supposes more unity than there usually is. You might well ask whether our own culture is an “integrated system.” Is it integrated, or is it a collection of many systems, often battling one another for supremacy? Is there any system of values that “binds our society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity?” Perhaps at one time Christianity provided that unity; perhaps at another time, the ideas of the Founding Fathers, such as those of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, provided that sense of unity in the United States.
But surely cultures always involve values. If we no longer have unified values, perhaps the conclusion to draw is that we no longer have a single culture. But culture always includes evaluation, a common understanding, not only of what is, but also of what is good and right. So Matthew Arnold, for example, defines culture as “the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” And T. S. Eliot understood culture “simply as that which makes life worth living. And it is what justifies other people and other generations in saying, when they contemplate the remains and the influence of an extinct civilisation, that it was worth while for that civilisation to have existed.”
Are you a “cultured” person? In a descriptive sense, we are all cultured, for no human being exists outside of culture. But in a normative sense, sad to say, not all of us are cultured, or at least not all of us are equally cultured. As my high school buddies used to say, there is a difference between “culture” and “culcha.” To be “culcha’d” is to be refined, educated, to have good taste, to be among the elite. If you are culcha’d, you prefer opera to rock and roll, filet of sole to Whoppers, Van Gogh to Norman Rockwell. It’s sometimes hard to draw the line between a respect for cultural norms and mere snobbery. But the word culture traditionally refers to something that’s good, something that’s better.
The definitions of Arnold, Eliot, and Herridge are perhaps unbalanced on the normative side, to the neglect of the descriptive. A better definition will say that culture is both what human society is and what it ought to be, both real and ideal. Culture is what a society has made of God’s creation, together with its ideals of what it ought to make.
Or maybe we should put the ideal first. People make things, because they already have a plan in view, a purpose, a goal, an ideal. The ideal comes first, then making things. First the norm, then the cultivation, the culture.
So now we can see how culture is related to religion. When we talk values and ideals, we are talking religion. In the broad sense, a person’s religion is what grips his heart most strongly, what motivates him most deeply. It is the value that transcends all other values. So Henry Van Til says that “culture is simply the service of God in our lives; it is religion externalized.” It is interesting that that Latin term colere I mentioned earlier, from which we get the word culture also refers to religious service, and comes into English as cult, cultic, and so on. Culture and cult go together.
If a society worships idols, false gods, that worship will govern the culture of that society. If a society worships the true God, that worship will deeply influence, even pervade its culture. If, like ours, a society is religiously divided, then it will reveal a mixture of religious influences.
Religions are totalitarian, you know. They govern everything. That’s certainly true of biblical Christianity. Scripture says, “whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Rom. 14:23 says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Col. 3:17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” So everything we do in culture will reflect our faith in some way. The same is true if you’re a Muslim: you will seek to express your Islamic faith in everything you think, say, or do. Same for Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, philosophical skeptics, rationalists, modernists, postmodernists, neo- pagan monists. (For these purposes, I’ll use religion, philosophy, and worldview synonymously.) Every worldview, every philosophy, even if it professes to be nonreligious, has this totalitarian influence on human life, and, followed consistently, will dictate a certain kind of culture. Culture, therefore, is never religiously neutral. Everything in culture expresses and communicates a religious conviction: either faith in the true God, or denial of him.
When we think about cultures, or elements of culture, that deny the true God, we must go beyond Gen. 1 and 2, to Gen. 3. For Scripture teaches that we have fallen into sin and that our cultures reflect that Fall. God’s original purpose is to fill the world with human culture that glorifies him. But today, we see people filling and ruling the earth, to be sure, but in human cultures that often express hatred for the creator.
In the Garden of Eden, Eve, then Adam, had a clear-cut choice: whether to obey Satan or God. Did she really imagine that Satan knew something God didn’t know, or that Satan had a higher level of authority? Or did she imagine that she herself had a higher level of authority than either of them, the “right to choose?” Perhaps these boil down the same thing. For when you claim authority for yourself, autonomy, you are playing Satan’s game. That’s exactly what Satan wants you to believe. Certainly, believing in our own autonomy is very foolish. But Adam accepted that foolishness, and it spread throughout their family.
Sin is when we pretend to be our own boss, when we claim to be the final authority in place of God. In our sinful condition, we claim to be the supreme judges of what is true and what is right. As sinners, we seek our own glory, rather than the glory of God. It’s not that sinners don’t know God. Paul in Rom. 1 tells us that sinners know God very well. But they don’t like the knowledge of God. They suppress it; they exchange it for a lie. Then they think and behave as if God didn’t exist. So Paul emphasizes that God-denying cultures are full of idols and every kind of wickedness. At one point, God destroyed mankind with a flood, showing mercy only to Noah and his family. Gen. 6:5 tells us,
The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
But the flood didn’t do away with sin. In Gen. 8:21, after the flood, God says it is still the case that “every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.”
So we might be led to think that there is nothing good in human culture after the Fall. Certainly the stories of Babel, Sodom, and Gomorrah, don’t give us much hope. But other parts of Scripture point to elements of goodness even in fallen culture. Genesis 4 narrates how Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain, murdered his brother Abel. But later in the chapter, we learn that Cain’s family developed a culture. They built a city. Some descendants lived in tents and raised livestock. Others made musical instruments and metal tools. In Scripture, these are all good things.
Introduction to Postmillennial Eschatology (10 mp3 lectures)
Southern California Center for Christian Studies seminar.
Lecture presentations and some classroom interaction.
Very helpful definition, presentation, and defense of postmillennialism.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
Moses was `educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” according to Stephen in Acts 7:22. Stephen does not condemn this pagan education as evil, but, as Dennis Johnson puts it, “concurs with the Jewish tradition’s positive assessment of Moses’ intellectual engagement with pagan wisdom.” Compare the positive estimate of pagan wisdom in the time of Solomon: Solomon’s wisdom is greater than that of any of the pagan sages (1 Kings 4:29-34), but that assessment assumes that the wisdom of the pagan sages is worth something.
In Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, we read about Hiram, king of Tyre (called “Huram” in Chronicles). Tyre and Sidon in Scripture are usually examples of wicked cities. But some citizens of these places were expert carpenters and stone masons. David accepted their help in building his palace, and Solomon accepted their help in building the temple of the Lord. 1 Kings 5:6 says that nobody in Israel could fell timber like the Sidonians. Now that’s good. That’s a good skill, and God used it in producing his temple.
Remember, of course, that a person can be skilled and wicked at the same time. You may know a car repairman who’s great at fixing cars, but who overcharges and cheats and lies. Being a good plumber or a good writer or a good pianist doesn’t make you a good person. The word “good” can be confusing here. It can mean ethically good, or merely useful or skilled.
Nevertheless, there are some kinds of goodness even in pagan culture: good products, good skills, real wisdom. The reason is the grace of God. God shows his mercy and kindness to us by bringing us blessings even in wicked cultures. There are two forms of God’s grace that we need to distinguish at this point: common grace and special grace. The basic difference between these is that special grace brings salvation, and common grace does not. But let us look at these a bit more closely.
Common grace, non-saving grace, is a difficult concept to get hold of. The phrase is not biblical; indeed, I don’t know of any passage of Scripture that uses the term “grace” this way. But Scripture does speak of certain blessings of God that fall short of salvation:
(1) God restrains human sin. He keeps people from doing all the wickedness they otherwise would do. So he confused the languages of people at the Tower of Babel, to keep them from accomplishing their wicked purposes (Gen. 11:7). He even keeps Satan on a short leash. God allowed Satan, for instance to harm Job up to a point, but no further (Job 1:12, 2:6).
(2) He gives some blessings to everybody without exception: the rain and sunshine (Matt. 5:43-48, Acts 14:17). He gives food to all living things (Psm. 65:5-13, 145:15-16). He gives civil government “for good” (Rom. 13:4), “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
(3) God gives skills and knowledge to unbelievers, so that they can do good in society. An unbeliever can do no good in the highest sense of good. Paul says that “those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God,” Rom. 8:8. To please God, our works must be done to the glory of God, obedient to the Word of God, motivated by faith and love of God. Unbelievers never do good works in this sense; indeed, even believers’ works always fall short according to this standard. But unbelievers are able to do things that look good to us. They don’t look good to God, for God knows the heart. But they look good to us, and they often bring benefits to society. So non-Christians often improve society through their skills and ideas. They make scientific discoveries, produce labor-saving inventions, develop businesses that supply jobs, produce works of art and entertainment.
That’s common grace; and you can see how God’s common grace leads to many good things even in unbelieving culture.
The other source of goodness, of course, is God’s special grace, his work of saving the world through Christ. This work of God goes far beyond common grace. For God sent Jesus, not just to keep us from being as bad as we could be, but to make us as good as creatures can be, to transform us into the glorious image of Christ himself. Jesus died for his people and rose again, so that they might be raised with him, dead to sin, alive to righteousness in Jesus. The Gospel calls people of all nations to turn from their sins, believe in Jesus, and receive God’s saving grace, his free gift of eternal life.
Does God’s saving grace make an impact on culture? Certainly it does. When you believe in Jesus, your whole life changes direction: your thoughts, words, and deeds. Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, you seek to do it to God’s glory. So whether you are a car repairman, a homemaker, a poet, a plumber, a pianist, a civil magistrate, or a pastor, you try to do your work to the glory of God. You’ll fail, because you won’t be perfect until glory. But you’ll try. And sometimes trying can make a huge difference. You can influence your culture, as many Christians have.
If you read a book like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born, you should be impressed at the great influence of the Christian gospel, and specifically Calvinism, upon western culture. I don’t want to minimize the wickedness of modern culture, and both Peter and I will say much about that this week. But for now I’m making the point that there is good as well. Kennedy and Newcombe emphasize that Christians, for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced western culture in such areas as help for the poor, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, the sanctity of life. Without Jesus, without his Gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.
The Gospel, you see, is not only a message for individuals, telling them how to avoid God’s wrath. It is also a message about a Kingdom, a society, a new community, a new covenant, a new family, a new nation, a new way of life, and, therefore, a new culture. God calls us to build a city of God, a New Jerusalem.
Major Bible Prophecies (5 mp3 lectures)
Gentry conference lectures on the Millennium, Daniel’s 70 Weeks,
Man of Sin, Heaven, and Unfulfilled Prophecies.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
Remember the cultural mandate. Sin does not abrogate it. God repeated it to Noah’s family in Gen. 9:1-7. Nor does Jesus abrogate it. Indeed, he restates it for his church in the Great Commission, Matt. 29:19-20. Theologians have often debated how the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission fit together. For now, just remember that both of these call for a renewed culture.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
You see how comprehensive that is? The Great Commission tells us not only to tell people the Gospel and get them baptized, but also to teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. Everything. The Gospel creates new people, people radically committed to Christ in every area of their lives. People like these will change the world. They will fill and rule the earth to the glory of Jesus. They will plant churches, establish godly families, and will also plant godly hospitals, schools, arts, and sciences. That’s what has happened, by God’s grace. And that is what will continue to happen until Jesus comes.
Does that mean that culture is OK, after all? That we don’t need to worry about it? Certainly not. What it means, is that the relation of Christ and Culture is more complicated than you may have thought. It’s certainly not warfare, pure and simple. There is a war, but the war is between Christ and Satan, Christ and unbelief, not Christ and culture. Nor is it a mutual embrace. Culture is an ambiguity, a mixture, of sin and righteousness, of good and bad, of love of Christ and hatred of Christ. That picture leaves us much to explore in remaining sessions.
Gentry note: Frame’s next lecture is on “Christ and Culture.” His third lecture is: “Christ and Our Culture”; his fourth lecture is: “Christians In Our Culture.”
To continue reading the lectures:
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