Return to Nurelweb, Academic Papers, Evangelical Christianity, or the Christian Travelers Guides Website







Irving Hexham

[First published in Crux, Vol. XV, No. 4, December, 1979:14-19]



There is a story about a Dutch Reformed elder who, in objecting to an argument about the value of introducing guitars into church, told the assembled church council that they were being superficial. When asked to explain he vehemently declared that they ought to have begun with “Adam and the Fall”. His contribution may not have helped that particular argument very much, but it does focus attention on the true starting point for any discussion of Christ and culture from a Calvinistic perspective.


In his book Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1975) H. Richard Niebuhr talks about a “conversationist” solution to the problem of Christ and culture represented by the writer of the Gospel according to .john, Augustine and John Calvin. It is Calvin whom Niebuhr says “makes it explicit” what this approach involves (p. 43). Unfortunately, he never. explains what Calvin said. All he does say is that “Calvin is very much like Augustine” (p. 217) and then proceeds to make a few generalised statements ending on the following note:


Though Calvinism has been marked by the influence of the eschatological hope of transformation by Christ and by its consequent pressing toward the realization of the promise, this element in it has always been accompanied by a separatist and repressive mote, even more markedly than Lutheranism (p. 218). Thus anyone wishing to find an exposition of the Calvinist understanding of culture in Niebuhr’s work is bound to he disappointed.


This paper, which attempts to summarise a Calvinist approach to culture and to relate it to current issues-, has the following sections: -


1. What do we mean by “culture”?


2. What is the relationship between culture and religion?

3. What is Calvinism? -

4. Augustine-and the City of God
5. -Calvin and-culture.
6. Calvinism and cultural crisis.

7.         The ongoing task of cultural reformation.



Today we use the word “culture” in a variety of ways in several distinct intellectual traditions and systems of thought. As a result, it is-avery confusing word which is difficult to define for general acceptance. Historically it was a noun of process; the- tending of -something, - Later it came to be associated with growth, and during the sixteenth century with human development - During the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold used it in Culture and Anarchy (1889) to describe a process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development as well as to denote intellectual and artistic works and practices. It was also used -by John Taylor in his influential work, Primitive Culture.(l891) meaning a people’s way of life. These two works lie behind much of our confusion about the meaning of culture. On the one hand, we tend to think of culture as artistic, intellectual concerns which may be contrasted. to what John Stuart Mill called the “piggish pleasures” of the masses. On the other hand, we think of culture as embracing the life of a people at whatever level of civilization they may exist.

It was this latter usage,. “the life of a people” which has been emphasized by scholars like Niebuhr - and which is adopted in this paper. Culture may be defined as “any human effort or labour expended upon the cosmos, to unearth its treasures and its riches and bring them into the service of man for the enrichment of human existence” (11. van T’il, The Calvinist Concept of Culture, Nutley, NJ,: Presbyterian - Reformed, 30). Put another way, it is “that total process of human activity and that total result of that activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech” (Niebuhr, p. 32). It is man’s social inheritance, however great or small.


Niebuhr says that culture includes “speech, education, tradition, myth, science, art, philosophy, government, rite, belicfs, inventions, technologies” (p. 33) and this seems to include religion. Indeed, he says: “Among the many values the Kingdom of God may be included .2’ (p. 39). In many ways his point is correct. Piety does take on many varying cultural forms throughout the world and the way the gospel is received bydifferent people will produce a variety of expressions of Christianity. Yet from a Calvinist perspective Niebuhr is quite wrong for there culture is often understood as a product of religion. -



Religion may be understood in many ways, and it is probably even more difficult to define than culture. However, among scholars two main understandings of religion have emerged. The first sees religion as certain acts, practices and beliefs which expresses sacral sentiments. The second sees religion as the fundamental mode of human existence. It is with this latter view that Calvinists agree. For them religion is an affair of the heart, the scriptural way of speaking about the central aspect of man. It is out of the heart that flow the springs of life because the heart is the deepest center of our temporal existence (Ps 51:10; 90:12: Prov 4:23; 15:13;Mt 15:19).


According to Calvin nearly “all the wisdom we possess ~.. consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes,l.l.1.). Only as we know God can we know ourselves aright. Therefore, in self knowing everyone must either worship and serve their Creator or that which is created (Rom 1:18.23). In creating man in his image God has made man tb find rest either in himself or in some aspect of his creation. All men have a need to know who they are and in satisfying this need they turn either to the true and living God or to substitutes around which to build their lives and center their personalities. - For this reason Calvinists see religion as the central sphere or fundamental aspect of life.


When religion is understood in this way it is seen to be totalitarian in its demands. If the direction of a person’s heart determines the direction of his or her life then everything is guided by this fundamental and often unconscious religion commitment. In the light of this it can be seen that culture can never shape religion, rather religion always determines the development of culture. Only at a second stage does culture begin to affect the expression of piety, but this is not the essence of religion, only its outward form. Such considerations lead Calvinists to proclaim that if God is not Lord of all he is not lord at all. To many evangelical Christians this sounds like a truism which they have been proclaiming for many years. What, may they ask, does this popular slogan have to do with the Calvinist view of culture? To answer this question we need to consider what Calvinism is.



Calvinism takes its name from the French reformer John Calvin (1509- 1564) whose theological works, especially his Institutes of the Christian Religion, shaped the thoughts of the second generation of reformers. Perhaps more accurate is Abraham Kuyper’s statement that Calvinism is “the channel in which the Reformation moved, so far as it was neither Lutheran nor Anabaptist nor Socinian” (Lectures on Calvinism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1970: p.14). - As such, Calvinism is characterized by its stress on the sovereignty of God, Critics have often reduced this emphasis on the place of God in Calvin’s theology to a distorted argument about predestination and the fate of the lost. Rut although Calvin, like Luther and Aquinas before him, deals with these topics, they are not central tohis theology in the way the critics imply. - At the center of his theology lies the glory of God.


In his introduction to Ford Lewis Battles translation of Calvin’s  Institutes (Philadelphia: - Westminster, 1961). John MeNciI says that Calvin was not “a theologian by profession but a deeply religious man who possessed a genius for orderly thinking and obeyed to the impulse to write out the implications of his faith’’ (p. II). - In agreement -is Calvin’s own comment on Jer. 9:24, “To know God is mans chief end and justifies his existence”


This statement later became the answer to the first question of the Westminster Catechism. The Shorter Catechism asks: “What is tile chief end of man?” and gives the answer: “N-tan’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” On the basis of this statement alone it would be possible to develop a Calvinist interpretation of culture. But before we do it is valuable to look back ,as Calvin himself did, to Augustine.



Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and probably the most influential Christian leader between the apostle Paul and Thomas Aquinas, lived at- a time when Christians faced a hostile world which was being shaken to its foundations. In viewing Augustine’s works it is necessary to remember his dramatic conversion and pre-Christian life because as a Christian much of his intellectual dialogue was actually with his past. Throughout his works there is a sense of a ‘nan seeking to serve God and make God the Lord of all he does. Not unexpectedly, therefore, we find that the Scriptures take-an increasingly important place in his writings as scriptural rather than Greek modes of thought begin to dominate.


His two greatest works are the Confessions and Time City of Cod (ed. Vernon Bourke, New York: Doubleday, 1958). We will be concerned with the latter. In 410 the Roman world was shocked to the core by the sack of Rome. The threatened yet never realized unthinkable had happened: the eternal City had been violated. Pagan Romans throughout the ancient World looked around them at a dying culture and sought in religion an answer to their distress. They felt, Christianity had sapped the strength of their peoples. As they had neglected the old gods, so too the gods had deserted them and withdrawn their protection against barbarian invaders. The new religion, Christianity, had proved powerless in their houror need. -


Augustine answered these charges with vigor. Beginning his work in 413 and completing it in 426, he produced a religious masterpiece and powerful apologetic for Christianity. Taking Ps 87:3 “Glorious things are spoken of thee, 0 City of God,” he gave and interpretation of history which assured the intellectual victory of Christianity. - In the first five books of The City of Cod, he systematically refuted the charge that the current troubles were due to neglect of pagan deities. In the next five he argues that just as the old gods could not save an earthly city, neither were they of any help for the future life. Then in the remaining twelve books he presents a positive case for the Christian faith.


The basis of Augustine’s argument is his conception of two cities: the city of God and the city of man. In his writings they appear as two metaphysical entities, the kingdoms or realms which he names allegorically Jerusalem and Babylon. He writes: “What we see, then, is that two societies have issued from two kinds of love, Worldly society has flowered from a selfish love which dared to despise even God, whereas the communion of saints is rooted in a love of God”

(p.        321).


On earth these two cities grow together, one constantly warring with the other, until judgement day. The earthly city seeks its own peace; the heavenly one knows that its members are on a pilgrimage yet can benefit from the peace of the earthly realm. Therefore, for Augustine, Christians are caught in a quandary and must live in constant tension. They are citizens of earth and of heaven. As far as they are able they must use the things of earth to God’s glory, but inevitably they will find that members of the earthly kingdom will make war upon them. As in the parables of the wheat and the tares, good and evil must grow together in society and even within-the visible church until the-final judgment.


One of the negative implications of Augustine’s understanding of the church’s pilgrimage is that Christians will rarely think in truly Christian ways because they are tempted to accept the ready-made answers of the city of man. People are lazy and instead of searching the Scriptures, seeking to develop a Christian viewpoint, they will uncritically accept the arguments of non-believers when these don’t seen, to directly threaten their faith. Thus it is much easier for Christians to adopt Greek dualism that, to apply biblical insights about the nature of reality.


Augustine’s influence upon his world and upon subsequent history was great. It is with him and his successors that we should begin any serious attempt to develop a Christian perspective on culture. In the centuries after his death a new Christian society emerged out of the barbarism of post-Roman Europe. This culture looked to Augustine as its source until the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the twelfth century and the creation of Aquinas’ vast synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian thought. Under the influence of Aquinas, Augustine and his followers were laid aside and reason, which Augustine distrusted became the basis of faith. Through Aquinas, the Catholic Church accepted the dualistic division of things into categories of nature and grace. Reason was to rule supreme in the realm of nature, while revelation was to be restricted to the affairs of grace. No longer could Christians say with Augustine “I believe in order to know”. Instead, following Aquinas, they proudly proclaimed that because they knew they were able to believe. This system of cultural synthesis received an abrupt shock in the sixteenth century with the preaching of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther and through the systematic work of John Calvin, who looked to Augustine for intellectual support.



Following Augustine. Calvin made the word of God his supreme authority and only court of appeal. Reason for Calvin is an unreliable guide because as a result of the fall, it is “at cross-purposes with itself, just like armies at war” (Institutes. 1, 15.6). For him; mankind treated in God’s image is fallen and corrupted. At the fall mankind did not totally lose the image of God, which Calvin refrains from defining, but “it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity”. Consequently, the beginning of our recovery of salvation is in “the restoration which we obtain through Christ” (Institutes, 1.15.4). Therefore, the fall, in Calvin’s theology, was far more radical than in Lutheran, Roman Catholic or modern evangelical theologies. The effects of the fall were articulated in chapter six of the Westminster Confession:

“By this sin they fell from their original righteousness, and communion with God and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of body and soul.”


If Calvin’s theology leads to a low estimation of the mankind’s natural abilities this does not mean that it has a negative view of God’s creation or the possibilities of restoration to communion with God through Christ. Because the human race has fallen so low God is given all the glory for preserving his creation and restoring both it and mankind through the work of Christ. Of Creation Calvin writes: “let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater” (Institutes. 1. 14.20). The good things of this life Calvin argues, are to be enjoyed as gifts of God,

Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author Himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin. Accordingly, no one will hold to a stronger path than he who diligently looks to this end. Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer. Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God’s beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it robs a man of all his senses .. (Institutes 111, 10.2, 3).


In freeing Christians from the bondage of an un-Christian Greek dualism which sees this world as essentially evil, Calvin emphasized the biblical theme of creation-fall-redemption. Unlike other theologies which stress a tension between the effects of the fall and man’s redemption based upon ontological division between man and God, Calvin stresses a moral drama which takes place in God’s good creation. Adam and Eve’s revolt against their maker brings a curse upon creation but this is mitigated by Christ’s work and eventually all things, humans and the world, will be restored to their intended glory (CoI 1~2O).


Politically Calvin created a revolution by rejecting the medieval division between church and state and transforming the Lutheran theory of the two kingdoms, but above all by rejecting the whole concept of hierarchy. In his view there was •in fact a division between the role of spiritual and civil government.


This sounds Lutheran, but when Calvin’s concept of government is examined it turns out to be something very different from anything Luther imagined. All government is under the rule of God. Anarchists and absolute monarchs are therefore both condemned (Institutes, IV. 20.1). And Christians are encouraged to participate in all levels of civil government because it is their duty as Christians. Government is not “polluted” but has its rightful end to “cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility” (Institutes, IV. 20.2). The contrast he makes to “spiritual government” is not, as one might think, to the church but to the inward workings of the kingdom of God and the life of the individual Christian.


By bringing the affairs of the state directly before God in this way. Calvin is rejecting all notions of sovereignty apart from the sovereignty of God. Obedience to rulers is required of Christians to the extent that is taught in God’s word and is to be judged in its light. It is therefore no automatic duty but something which requires thought and continual testing because when rulers violate God’s ordinances they betray their office which depends upon God and may be removed by him through the actions of his People (Institutes, IV. 20. 23-31).


No wonder that Calvinism was to the sixteenth arid seventeenth century what Marxism is to our own. Politically Calvin’s emphasis on the Word of God unleashed a reaction which Michael Walxer has aptly called The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge: Harvard, 1965). Not only was the church to be reformed and restored in the light of Scripture but the whole of society was to be subjected to critical scrutiny and in the words of the English Calvinists reformed “root and branch”. In Hungary, parts of Switzerland, German states, the Netherlands, Scotland and England a huge social revolution was released. Education, welfare programs, the secular use of music and art, trade and commerce flourished as never before.


But this re-creation of Christian culture did not last long. In France, Hungary and Britain the forces of reaction bled the Calvinist movement dry. In the Netherlands, the new order was tamed and an arid Protestant scholasticism developed based upon the re-introduction of Aristotle’s works and the glorification of reason. So the situation remained for two centuries until the forces of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution threatened to apply a death blow to European Calvinism as the cultural crisis of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries developed the roots of our own contemporary crisis.



The nineteenth century saw the outwardgrowth of evangelical religion and,-as most church historians would argue, its inner decay. At a time when revivalism was sweeping America and evangelical piety advanced in Britain, the intellectual stock of Christianity fell to a low ebb. New threats to the faith grew within the church itself as well as outside its boundaries. Rationalism-, scepticism, the rise of evolutionary theory as a challenge to religion, biblical criticism and a retreat from social concerns all mark the retreat of the Church in the -nineteenth century. There is, however, one exception to this otherwise grim picture: the Netherlands.


During the nineteenth - century a rare and little know-n religious revival took place in the Netherlands which - affected every area of life and produced both intellectual innovation and social action. This -revival is connected with the names of WilliamBildcrdijk (1757-1831), Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) as well as a host of other equally gifted but lesser known men. William Bilderdijk was a Dutch nobleman who fled to England when French revolutionary armies overran the Netherlands in 1793. After the defeat of the French he returned to the Netherlands in 1835 and rapidly became the Dutch national poet. Indeed almost –single handed he created the Dutch language in its modern form, lie also became the nation’s prophet and a preacher of doom because to his dismay the new monarchy retained much of the structure of the new revolutionary state and steadfastly refused to promote Calvinism in the state church or schools. Under his influence, a small revival broke out and indirectly through his teachings a liberal politician, Groen van Prinsterer, became a believing Christian. -


The mantle of Bilderdijk fell upon Groen van Prinsterer who struggled from 1831 onwards to re-create a Calvinist state in the Netherlands. -In particular he offered an interpretation of history in the tradition of Augustine which saw the unrest of his day as- a direct result of unbelief. In 1847. one year before Marx published the Communist Manifesto,: Groen van Prinsterer issued his major work Unbelief and Revolution. In this he argued cogently that unbelief led to state despotism and oppression which in turn provoked violent revolution based upon -an atheistic philosophy which in time itself would become oppressive. Thus, although he saw much good in the French


Revolution, he saw its root in a godless ideology and argued that revolutionaries inspired by such a belief would be unable to secure the liberties which they sought. Accepting Augustine’s antithesis between the city of God and the city of man, Groen van Prinsterer called the Christian people of his land to a communal witness and sought to combine them in social and political action. Christian education was fundamental in this. He believed that parents should not send their children to secular schools where the values of their borne would be systematically denied and even held up to ridicule. He urged Christians to create their own schools which would nurture their children in faith. This stance led to a long political battle over the right to run private schools and the right to funding from public taxes. Groen van Prinsterer did not live to see his dreams come true, indeed when he died the school issue seemed a lost cause and the fact the cause was eventually won was due to Abraham Kuyper.


Kuyper was an extraordinary man. At university he was a brilliant student who was awarded the highest academic honours for his fervent advocacy of theological liberalism. following his ordination in 1863 he ministered in the small northern-Dutch fishing village of Beesd and here through the witness of his ill-educated congregation he experienced an evangelical conversation. A changed man, Kuyper read theology with a flew zeal and became the leader of the small Calvinist grouping in the Netherlands. He wrote numerous books, edited a weekly religious magazine and a daily newspaper. In 1878 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first modern political party in the Netherlands. at a time when most of its members were unenfranchised. He established the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 and led a major church secession in reaction to the liberalism of the state church. 1-ic supported Christian schools and generally reshaped the whole structure of Dutch society. In 1902 he became prime minister, a post he held until 1905 when he lost the election due to labour unrest. lie then retired from politics to become the elder statesman of his nation. But Kuyper did not act alone in all of this. He was surrounded by a host of Christian leaders who arose at a time when Christianity was under severe attack.


How did Kuyper justify all these activities? As a preacher should he not have restricted himself to church affairs? Kuyper would have answered this by saying “As a minister of the Gospel: yes; as a Christian citizen: no.” He developed a Christian understanding of culture which he derived from the Scripture and Calvinist tradition and which led him to work for a Christian transformation of society. -


Kuyper argued that the fall disrupted God’s plan for mankind and that without God’s continuing preserving grace the world would become hell itself. Therefore Christians and non-Christians alike shared in God’s redemptive activity through his common grace which restrained sin and maintained order in the world. In addition, Christians experienced saving grace which led them to a saving knowledge of Christ. The whole world, therefore, shared in some aspects of Christ’s redemptive work which restores a fallen creation. In this process Christians have a God-given mandate based upon Genesis 1:28 to act as God’s agents on earth. In their private and public lives they are to make Christ Lord of all not simply in terms of soteriology but in terms of the whole creation mandate.


Arising out of this insight. Kuyper developed his doctrine of sphere-sovereignty which saw God’s sovereignty extending to every aspect of the cosmos. Thus God’s law is not simply his moral law but the Word by which he maintains and upholds all things. Like Luther, Kuyper would agree that every aspect of life has its own laws, but unlike Luther he did not separate these from the kingdom of Christ. For Kuyper there are not two kingdoms but one which unites in itself a multiplicity of aspects and a true diversity of order under God’s governance. In making Christ Lord of all, Kuyper calls upon Christians to discover and work out God’s calling in every aspect of life according to his sovereign will. Thus for Kuyper there is a Christian Science, Christian politics, Christian education, art and music etc. ... And on all of these subjects he wrote profusely.


This is a far reaching vision and not without difficulties due to its breadth. Following Kuyper and to some extent in living debate with him a number of Christian leaders have contributed to the discussion. -Kuyper’s associate at the Free University, Herman Bavinck, grounded his views about culture in God’s act of creation and our knowledge of that act in revelation. In the Scriptures, Bavinck argued, we find mankind given the task of serving God in his world and of being God’s ruler on earth. But due to the fall man has neglected the God-given task of ruling the earth for himself and not for God. Now Christ restores all things. But in history, which means in the midst of a culture that has radically departed from its original intent, Christians must salve to serve Christ in a fallen world. They are the true culture bearers after God’s intention in creation. But because of the fall and the false man-made culture which has arisen, they are going to- encounter opposition and oppression for their desire to serve the Gospel and make God lord of all things. Hence Bavinck reminds Christians of the cost their calling will have upon them.


Klaas Sehilder (1890-1952), who profoundly influenced Hans Rookmaker, dissented from Kuyper’s views by arguing that they had created many unanswered questions. Instead, he emphasised the distinction between God as creator and man as creature but not in a dialectical sense. Barth, Brunncr and Tillich were for Schilder equally wrong. Schilder argued that there was no antithesis between God and history, God and nature, God and the creature, nature and grace; instead the antithesis is within the universe between sin and grace, Christ and anti-Christ. For him Christ is the Lord of history and history is the channel of redemption in Christ. Christ is the anointed one, our substitute to bear the wrath of God for us. He is also the great restorer and redeemer of all creation, a view Schilder based upon questions 31 and 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Christ redeems his people and restores all things to himself. -He is the second Adam, the true man. So too the Christian, who is in Christ, has a part in Christ’s redemption of the world by carrying out God’s purpose in bringing all things into obedience to Christ. In this way Christians form culture as a God-given task.


Contemporary with the work of Schilder was the development of the Amsterdam School of Christian philosophy associated with the names of Herman Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Taking Kuyper’s call for a reformation of academic life, they began in the 1920’s, to construct a Christian philosophy based upon a radical critique of existing philosophical systems.


Their aim was to make an attempt to free Christian thoughts and action from dependence upon un-and-anti biblical theories. They sought to create a community of Christian scholars growing out of Christian community, the church, which would begin to reconstruct culture in a Christian direction. Basic to this task was theft profound analysis of western philosophy and of modem thought since Kant. Theft works are long, ponderous and use a complex technical vocabulary. In response to criticism along these lines they argue that few people find Kant easy reading yet his work influences almost every sphere of modem life.


Without developing the insights of the Amsterdam School it needs to be noted that it has its followers in most Christian lands today. Both Hans Rookmaker and Francis Schaeffer based their cultural critique upon the work of this school. In Canada it has a strong base with the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, the Patmos Gallery and the Committee for Justice and Liberty. Members of this school of Christian philosophy are probably the most prolific and promising Christian writers on cultural concerns today even though the Dutch background of their thought has a limiting effect on their impact on evangelicals.



Evangelical students in North America are faced with a variety of theological views from a broadly based conservative perspective. To the extent that they can identify with the Calvinist conception of culture it may provide an inipetus for their work. if they reject the idea of dichotomy and seek instead a unified Christian perspective then the Calvinist option is open to them. If they reject the theory of two kingdoms, seeing instead God as sovereign over a diverse creation, then again the Reformed perspective may speak to them. Finally, if they believe that the fall affects man’s reason as well as his will then they may be attracted to a Calvinist perspective on culture.


Having decided where they stand theologically then their task is one of obedience to God’s call. Guided by his Word they are called to fulfill his command in their lives, to make Christ the Lord of all and, in the words of the Westminster Catechism, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.