What do you mean by ‘Christian’? What do you mean by ‘culture’?

A classroom full of kindergarten students is busily working on their art projects. One student glances over at the work of the student sitting next to him. “What’s that?” he asks. “It’s a cat,” the second child answers. The other looks skeptical. “No, that can’t be. We have a cat at home, and that’s not what it looks like.” The second child stops drawing, stiffens, fixes his eyes straight ahead of himself, and repeats, “it’s a cat.” The first child insists again, absolutely sure of himself, “no it’s not.” The conversation gradually escalates, with each student offering reasons as to whether or not the object in view is or is not a cat. The first stresses the lack of fur, whiskers, and movement. The second points to the shape of the head, the ears, and the body.

Finally a teacher is forced to mediate, and quietly explains to the second student that what his critic means is that it’s not a real cat; it’s simply a picture of a cat. She then explains to the first student that what the other means is that it’s a picture of a cat, not a real cat. The same word can mean different – though similar – things, in different contexts. This is not something we are supposed to argue about.

Something similar to this often happens, I think, when Christians get to arguing about the meaning of words like ‘Christian’ or ‘culture’ or ‘redemption’ or ‘transformation.’ We act as if any of these terms has one, authoritative meaning that everyone is supposed to accept, and then criticize everyone who, using the word differently, makes statements that seem contrary to our own.

Consider the word ‘Christian.’ The word appears in the New Testament three times. In Acts 11:26 we are told that in Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called ‘Christians.’ There is no hint that there is anything normative about this. It’s simply a passing reference to the historical origin of a descriptive term. In Acts 26:28 we come across the word again, this time in the mouth of a pagan ruler. After listening to the Apostle Paul proclaim the gospel King Agrippa asks, “In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Here again it is obvious that the term refers to a follower of Jesus. Finally, in 1 Peter 4:16 the Apostle Peter reminds believers that whether or not suffering has a redemptive quality to it depends on whether or not a person is suffering “as a Christian,” as opposed to as a “murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler.” Here the term seems to refer to someone who is actually following Christ in his or her conduct, rather than simply to someone who professes faith in Christ.

Of course, there are many other examples in the New Testament of the apostles declaring one thing or another to be “in Christ.” It would seem that these instances are also occasions in which the adjective ‘Christian’ might fairly be used. So for instance, when Romans 8:1 says that there is no no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, it would be a fair paraphrase to say that there is no condemnation for those who are Christians. Or when Paul says in Romans 9:1 that he is speaking the truth in Christ, it would be appropriate to say that he is declaring the “Christian truth.” Finally, when Paul says in Romans 12:5 that believers are “one body in Christ” we could paraphrase him as saying that we are “one Christian body.”

Fair enough? What then about those occasions in which Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” in breathtakingly expansive ways, ways indicative of the radical claims of the gospel over all of life. For instance, what about a passage like Colossians 1:15-20, in which Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things are reconciled in Christ, and all things exist in Christ. Could we say that from this perspective there is a sense in which all things are definitively Christian (in origin, destiny, and existence)? It would seem so. At the very least it would seem very silly or petty of a person to say that we can say that something is “in Christ” and yet we cannot say that it is in any sense “Christian.”

From these examples you can readily see that the word ‘Christian’ can have a wide range of meanings. It can be a purely descriptive, historical term, referring to someone who outwardly professes to be a Christian. It can refer to someone who is actually living as a Christian, or to someone who is actually united to Christ. More broadly it could refer to the truth of Christianity, or even to the truth seen from the perspective of Christianity. Indeed, it could even refer to material objects insofar as they are seen in relation to Christ.

What then, about the word culture? Here we are on much more difficult ground, because the word culture is not a Scriptural word. There is a wide range of meanings and uses of the word culture, and all of them are correct. For instance, culture can refer to human products, such as a hammer, or an article of clothing. It can also refer to a set of beliefs or understood meaning about those products, such as a religious perspective or philosophical worldview. Ryan McIlhenny suggests in Kingdoms Apart that Christians should think of the redemption of culture (and remember, redemption is another tough word, with both concrete theological meanings and general secular meanings that predate Christianity) not in terms of the redemption of material things but as the expression of a Christian perspective on those things, i.e., about an understanding of how those things relate to Christ.

Darryl Hart has trouble with this. As he writes in a comment to Friday’s post on this blog, “I don’t think the Bible has much to say about cultural life.” What does he mean by that? Is he referring to the meaning of life, suggesting that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life? Or is he talking about the structure and nature of material things, as if to say, I don’t think the Bible has much scientific or technical information in it? The first understanding of Darryl’s sentiment would be absurd; the second makes a whole lot of sense. Darryl gives an indication of how he is thinking:

It seems to me that when Christians make culture they end up making things informed as much by non-biblical teaching as by Scripture itself… The issue in my mind is the sufficiency of Scripture.  I do not deny that the Bible has much to say about a Christian’s obedience.  I don’t think it has much to say [of the] odd notion of ‘cultural obedience.’

Clearly Darryl is not saying that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life, or about the necessity of obedience in all of life. He is talking about epistemology – or how we know things. He is concerned that Christians arrogantly claim for themselves superiority over unbelievers regarding matters about which Scripture does not speak. He is using the word culture in a narrow way (i.e., material culture rather than culture as meaning) and he is implying a narrow use of the word Christian (i.e., something found in Scripture but not anywhere else). And for the point he is trying to make, a point I think most Reformed Christians would affirm, that makes sense. The question is, is that the only way Christians can speak?

In another comment Darryl sheds more light on his concern: He notes five definitions of culture found in a particular dictionary, the fifth and most significant of which is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.” Darryl then writes, “The closest that we get to a Christian culture in there is perhaps a church culture … But for Christians to claim anything distinct in this list of definitions is beyond me.”

Darryl gives the example of language. Language is basic to culture, but Christians clearly don’t use their own distinctive vocabulary or grammar. And of course, if we are understanding language as a bare symbolic fact, he is right. On the other hand, if we understand language as a set of tools that presuppose a structure of meaning (people do sometimes talk about the ‘language of Scripture’ or of Christianity, referring to its ordinary use of terms and concepts to refer to certain truths), much more needs to be said.

Darryl also gives Kuyper’s example of a civilization such as Rome, the Muslim world, or other ancient cultures. He writes, “To my mind, that is a conceit of neo-Calvinism, the thought of a Christian culture.  It applies the antithesis where it does not belong, at least in this age.” Again, it seems that Darryl’s words could be parsed out here in ways with which most of us would agree. Christians do often use these words loosely and in ways that confuse and mislead unbelievers at best, while utterly alienating them as sheer arrogance at worst. On the one hand, if by Christian culture we are talking about a material society becoming the kingdom of God itself, then Christians should spurn all such talk. If we are saying that a particular society does everything justly and in accord with the truth (i.e., Peter’s use of the term) we should also reject its application to a whole group of people, believers and non-believers alike. If we are saying that everything good in a civilization comes from Christian people or from exclusively biblical ideas, we have become guilty of breathtaking (and ignorant) arrogance.

On the other hand, historians and sociologists routinely refer to particular societies with the descriptive term Christian, often in contrast to other societies that are Buddhist, Muslim, or pagan. And what they mean when they write this way is that various societies have been shaped to a certain extent by truths of the Christian religion, or by beliefs unique to a body of Christians. Does Hart reject this? I doubt it.

I could go on and on, applying the same analysis to words like redemption and transformation, but this post is already long. Consider it a testimony to my frustration with the sound-bite quality that the Reformed debate over questions of Christianity and culture often takes, a quality  no better than those two kindergarteners arguing over whether or not a picture of a cat should be referred to as a cat. I’m not saying there are no real disagreements or important issues at stake. I am an ethicist, after all, having devoted the last four years of my life to studying Christianity and culture. And no, I’m not simply picking on Darryl Hart here, any more than I’m picking on neo-Calvinists or reconstructionists.

Far too often our debates devolve into simplistic sloganeering against paper caricatures that obscures the real points of agreement and disagreement. We abandon all charity of interpretation as we insist that others use their terms precisely as we do. Well aware of the extremes to which those in the other camp have gone, we are entirely blind to the extremes of those in our own. Knowing our own faults and inconsistencies, we readily forgive them based on our good intentions and correct thinking on the ‘main points’, while holding others ruthlessly accountable for the logical outworking of their own mistakes. A good test here: do you find yourself stubbornly unwilling to talk about something with the language or perspective found in Scripture, simply because someone somewhere has abused it?

I’m not above criticism here either. At one point or another, I’ve done every one of the things I’m saying we shouldn’t do. We all need to do better.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on December 17, 2012, in Neo-Calvinism, The Secular, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What do you mean by ‘Christian’? What do you mean by ‘culture’?.

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