My Father's World

by Michael S. Horton

Where are today's Rembrandts, Bachs, Durers, Miltons, Handels, Herberts and Donnes, Bunyans, the great believing scientists, spokespersons for liberty, justice, education, and the simple workers and home-builders who translated the Reformation's God-centered theory into daily practice? Columbia University historian, Eugene F. Rice, observes that the Reformation brings us face to face with "the gulf between the secular imagination of the twentieth century and the sixteenth-century's intoxication with the majesty of God."1

"This world is not my home: I'm just 'a passin' through." Those are familiar words to many of us reared in the evangelical world. The late Francis Schaeffer wrote a booklet titled, Super-Spirituality, in which he criticized a church which is, in the words of Os Guinness, "privately engaging, but socially irrelevant." And yet, from time to time, we sing, "This is my Father's world." What I hope to accomplish is a brief sketch of the Reformation approach to culture, first with regard to some important contrasts with current spirituality and then in terms of the biblical support; finally, we will very briefly explore what this approach holds forth for our practical needs at the end of the twentieth century.

Five Approaches
It was the Yale theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, who distinguished between five approaches Christians have historically taken to their world.2

The first model Niebuhr calls "Christ Against Culture." Many Christians notice the antagonism of the world toward Christians in the first few centuries. John warns converts who must make a decision between standing up publicly for their faith on one hand, and the attractions of worldly acceptance on the other (1 Jn.4). Successive generations, often influenced by their own social conditions and treatment, interpreted such texts as normative for the manner in which Christians ought to interact with the world. In other words, the antagonism which the world had toward the early church ought to be regarded as a normal picture for the church and its relationship to any given culture.

The Mennonite and Amish communities are probably the most obvious examples of this tradition. Although there are rich traditions of service within the group, the world is viewed as a place from which to escape into communities of "separated brethren." The Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists (1527) argued, "Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith...are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things...God further admonishes us to withdraw from Babylon and the earthly Egypt that we may not be partakers of the pain and suffering which the Lord will bring upon them."

The second approach is "The Christ of Culture." "In every culture to which the Gospel comes there are men who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit," writes Niebuhr of this position. For these people, there is not only the absence of antagonism between Christ and the culture; there is hardly any difference between the two! With the ancient heretic Pelagius these adherents view Christ as the moral example who points us to a perfect society.

We have seen in history, and especially in our own day, this tendency to confuse creation and redemption, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, from both the Christian Left (identifying Christ with utopian socialism) and the Christian Right (identifying Christ with capitalism and American culture).

The third approach is Niebuhr's "Christ Above Culture." Here are the "centrists," those who have "refused to take either the position of the anticultural radicals or that of the accommodators of Christ to culture" (p.124).

Fourth is "Christ and Culture in Paradox." This tradition, encompassing Lutheranism, refuses either to reject culture or to confuse culture with Christianity. Instead, God has created two distinct realms of activity in the Christian's life: one by creation and the other by redemption. In creation, God gives us work, service to neighbor, pleasure, the state and the family. In redemption, he gives us the church, with the Word and the sacraments. These are not two antagonistic realms, nor two identical realms, but two different realms.

Thus, the Christian who follows the "Christ and Culture in Paradox" motif participates gladly in culture, but not as a means of grace; it is an aspect of being human, not merely of being a Christian.

Martin Luther spoke of the "two kingdoms" (about which you will read further in this issue). The sword of the earthly kingdom was a real sword and it was to be exercised with strict justice. But the sword of the heavenly kingdom was Scripture in general, and the gospel in particular, and it speaks of compassion and mercy. Thus, when the peasants saw Luther's message as highlighting the lifting up of the poor, the despised, the unworthy, they were surprised to see his lack of enthusiasm at their uprising, illustrated in his famous work, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. The gospel raised up the poor in the kingdom of God, but did not justify rising up against the prince in the temporal realm. The pastor must exercise charity, Luther writes, but the prince is God's "minister of wrath." "Here there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace."3

The final category is "Christ the Transformer of Culture." The transformer type emphasizes God's lordship over all of creation and, therefore, all aspects of life. Although culture is fallen, it is still God's creation and the kingdom of God in redemption is expected to have positive effects in transforming the kingdoms of this world. This does not mean that these activities are redemptive, but that they are related to redemption as the effect is to the cause.

Niebuhr appeals to John's Gospel as a characteristic example of this approach. Here Christ is emphasized as "the Word made flesh." Christ is not only the priest of redemption, but the king of creation. God loves the world, not just individuals in it and his redemptive work secured redeemed individuals who are part of a new creation (Ro.8:20-23).

Historically, this tradition is represented by Augustine and Calvin in particular, according to Niebuhr. Whereas the "Christ Against Culture" adherents would say, with the church father Tertullian, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?", referring to the relationship between culture and Christ, those of the "Christ Transforming Culture" stripe would view culture as a distinct, though related, part of Christ's universal reign. While creating a great sculpture or building a house or raising a family may not be redemptive activities of the kingdom of God, they are important activities to which Christians realize an urgent call, because they are commanded by the universal Lord in the "cultural mandate" of the early chapters of Genesis.

However, here I must take issue with Niebuhr's thesis, as many have since its publication in 1952. Niebuhr argues a wider gulf between Luther and Calvin on this point than the facts warrant:


Calvin's more dynamic conception of the vocations of men as activities in which they may express their faith and love and may glorify God in their calling, his closer association of church and state, and his insistence that the state is God's minister not only in a negative fashion as restrainer of evil but positively in the promotion of welfare, his more humanistic views of the splendor of human nature still evident in the ruins of the fall, his concern for the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh [against the Mennonites], above all his emphasis on the actuality of God's sovereignty...(p.217) make for a more dynamic involvement of Christians in culture.


First, while there are distinctions between Luther's sharp contrasts between the sacred and secular spheres and Calvin's interest in showing the relationships between them, Calvin's theory is not nearly as far from Luther's as Niebuhr is suggesting. For instance, Calvin includes an entire section in his Institutes titled "The Two Kingdoms," in which he insists,

There is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the 'spiritual' and the 'temporal' jurisdiction (not improper terms)...The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority. Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God's sight.4


In other words, the reformers were agreed that while there was no conflict between a Christian being involved in both realms, there was a contrast. Human activity can never bring salvation: that was the Reformation's central affirmation. And yet, the activity of Christian men and women does bring a certain transforming element as they live out their callings in distinction and honor, serving both to attract non-Christians to the gospel while also bringing civil righteousness, justice, and compassion to bear on human relationships. The Reformation is regarded by the consensus of secular historians as the most decisive moment in the social and cultural transformation of Europe into the "modern age." Nevertheless, its contributions to culture are the fruit, not the root, of that movement's message.

One can observe the effects of a shift from a basically human-centered and church-centered approach to a Christ-centered theology in the daily lives of the simple and the great. Liberating Christians from the tyranny of monastic spirituality to engage in worldly affairs as the truly godly and worthwhile activity was one of many theological reforms which had enormous sociological implications. We must urge our brothers and sisters again in our day to discover their callings, not by probing heaven's secret files, but by pursuing their particular interests, doing what is necessary to equip them for distinguished service in that field, and then using that vocation as a vehicle for bringing glory to God by serving the community.

Another contribution of the Reformation to the discussion of Christ and culture is the distinction between callings. Calvin lamented that "most of the problems in the world today are due to the fact that men transgress the boundaries of their callings." Florence had been ruled by the eccentric and moralistic preacher Savonarola a century earlier and secular princes ruled the church either by purchasing bishoprics or by declaring themselves the head of the church by divine right (Henry VIII and the Church of England being an example of the latter). Calvin, no doubt, had such transgressions of boundaries in mind, and if not, he had plenty of his own headaches of this type to contend with in Geneva. God had called some Christians to be his ministers in proclaiming the gospel and had called others to be his ministers in creating and enforcing legislation. The Geneva Confession of 1536 declared, "Since in performing their office they serve God and follow a Christian vocation, whether in defending the afflicted and innocent, or in correcting and punishing the malice of the perverse...we ought to regard civil officials as vicars and lieutenants of God."

Christians were to be salt and light in the arts by actually becoming artists, not by the church issuing edicts and pronouncements. Those engaged in business and trade were to glorify God by producing or offering quality goods at a reasonable price. This is an essential point. When one asks, "So the Reformation wanted the church to be involved in every aspect of life?", we must reply, "Not on your life!" In fact, the lordship of Christ over every sphere was not the lordship of the church. God rules his world through institutions he created before and after the fall which have to do with culture, not redemption. It is not the place of the church to issue political pronouncements, but the place of Christians who have been called to that arena; it is not the place of the church to create great works of art and music, but the place of Christians who have been given an artistic vocation. In medieval theory, the City of God (Christendom: church and culture as one) was ruled by the church; in Reformation theory, the City of God was spiritual and redemptive, not cultural. Therefore, the involvement of Christians in these spheres to the glory of God took preeminence, breaking the centuries of ecclesiastical rule.

Christ & Culture in the Scriptures
While each of these five approaches tell a part of the truth, many readers will notice that the biblical record is richer than Niebuhr's survey. Of course, it was never his intention to provide an exhaustive account of the biblical attitude toward culture, nor is it mine in this brief survey of the views.

However, we must realize that the Bible has a great deal to say about our relationship to this world. Work was instituted before the fall, not as a curse, but as a blessing. This is true also of pleasure, leisure, science (the naming of the animals), agriculture, and, most important, the union of husband and wife (Gen. 2:5-20). The judgment on the human race due to the fall affected all of these areas of life which God created good, but these activities are in themselves noble and acceptable aspects of our divinely ordered existence.

After the fall and Cain's murder of Abel, we read of two lines: the ungodly line of Cain and the godly line of Seth, corresponding to the ungodly Adamic race and the godly line from which the Second Adam, Christ, came. Nevertheless, God issues Cain a pardon from execution for his brother's murder and promises his temporal protection in order to further culture, not redemption. Therefore, Cain builds a city (Gen.4:16) and his descendants included Jabal, the father of the nomads (v.20), Jubal, the father of those who play the harp and flute (v.21), and Tubal-Cain, "an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron" (v.22). Culture is not evil, because God in his providence is creating it. And yet, culture is not redemptive, for the City of Man is being built by the ungodly line. Nevertheless, God's people participate in and contribute to that common culture and even make use, later in their history, of the raw materials and skills they brought back after exile in pagan lands.

We could rehearse the numerous Psalms praising God through instruments of every kind. We could point to the remarkable poetry of Hebrew literature and the nobility which the Proverbs attach to honest labor, loyal friendship, and so on. When these worldly activities, however, so attract us that we see them no longer as means to raising our eyes in gratitude to the Giver, but as ends in themselves, such pleasures become demons, as the writer of Ecclesiastes (probably Solomon) points out so eloquently. "I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied," he writes. "He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor--it is the gift of God" (Ecc.3:10-13).

Calvin commented in this vein: "To sum up, we see wither this freedom tends: namely that we should use God's gifts for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind. With such confidence our minds will be at peace with him, and will recognize his liberality toward us." Our involvement in this world includes, therefore, participation in the social life of non-Christian co-workers, family and friends, as long as such involvement does not cause us to misuse our liberty in "things indifferent" (i.e., things not expressly forbidden in scripture).

Many Christians, especially the monks, writes Calvin, expect believers (at least the truly committed ones) to separate from the world in outward behavior, style of language, dress, and other externals. "We have never been forbidden to laugh," Calvin writes, "or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine."5 Rather, it is the misuse of these common gifts which offends God. Our Creator is pleased to see his children enjoying his creation with the other kids on the playground, since only they can truly praise him as the Giver of all good things.

In the New Testament culture comes into the picture as a negative force, due to the fact that Israel is occupied by Rome and both Jewish and Roman cultures seek the elimination of Christianity. Nevertheless, even in the face of such aggressive opposition, Paul urges Christians to participate in common culture: "Remind them [the Christians] to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men," since, as Paul goes on to say, we were saved by grace ourselves, "not by works of righteousness which we have done" (Tit.3:1-5). Further, "Aspire to lead a quiet life, mind your own business, and work with your hands, as we commanded you, so you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing" (1 Thes.4:11-12). Very often we consider what we do throughout the week as "mundane," while the things we do for the church are truly important. But this misses Paul's whole point in these passages. Honest labor is a pre-evangelistic apologetic for Christianity, Paul argues.

The New Testament does speak quite clearly about the cosmic nature of redemption. Not only is God concerned with saving individuals; he has also purchased at Christ's expense a new heavens and earth, where the effects of the fall are no longer felt. "The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now" (Ro.8:21-22). Injustice, poverty, hunger, disease, and all that plagues our sophisticated, technological age do have a solution--but only if we are willing to work for the advance of the kingdom of God and wait for the consummation.

Insights for Today's Situation
First, let's look at the political realm briefly. The Moral Majority was an utter failure. Lou Harris, one of America's leading pollsters, notes, "The American people are now distrustful of many religious types in public life." Besides the fact that many who led the Christian Right were themselves wrapped up in moral scandals, there is the general impression in society today that conservative Christians are, like Iran's Moslem extremists, committed to enforcing the moral and religious convictions of a minority on the nation's majority. To be sure, the secular press has greatly exaggerated this image, but there is enough truth to make the caricatures believable to many. Now, instead of offering more fuel for the fire of anti-media sermons, that should lead us to ask why this is the case.

From the time of the Puritans to the activities of the evangelicals in the last century, conservative Protestants have always considered the proclamation of the gospel and the improvement of society to go hand-in-hand. Though distinct activities, they are, like faith and works, related as cause to effect. They founded Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and on we could go. They were among the nation's greatest artists, writers, poets, musicians, politicians, social activists, and opinion-leaders. And then, through the disillusionment of World War I, followed by the second, pessimism was the rich soil in which dispensational premillenialism flourished. By this time, too, pietism (emphasizing one's personal relationship with Christ and separation from the world, often to the exclusion of equally biblical notions) had evangelicals wondering about involvement in this world as a matter of principle. "Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?" many were asking themselves now. The rapture is around the corner and this world's clock is winding down, so evangelism is the only justification for the Christian's continued existence.

But then, in the seventies, an obscure American intellectual whose Swiss chalets became havens for disillusioned evangelicals who had been nurtured in this anti-world separatism and escapism found a growing audience back home. Of course, that man was Francis Schaeffer. While many evangelicals with their roots in the Reformation of Luther and Calvin continued to support social causes, fundamentalists and even some evangelicals who had previously disavowed any involvement in worldly affairs suddenly awakened to the reality that Christians were living like the ostrich, with their heads in the sands, or as those who could never leave what Schaeffer called "the evangelical ghetto," with its own lingo, bumper stickers, network of Christian businesses, and so on.

However, it was their practice and not so much their theology that was altered by this interaction with the Reformation "world-view," as it was coming to be called. This is the important part of this observation. While Schaeffer wrote a great deal of material on the Christian view of the world, creation, fall, redemption, eschatology, and other aspects of Reformation theology, his real legacy will be for generations to come that it was he who awakened evangelicals to the pro-life cause. While Schaeffer would be honored that his gifts were used so greatly by God in the service of so worthy a cause, he would also be disappointed that evangelicals and fundamentalists had remained essentially hostile toward this world, though involved again for the first time in decades.

This is why evangelical social action today is characterized, not by the positive involvement of the past, when Christians were the nation's great educators, artists, scientists, and professionals, but by the essentially negative cast of evangelical involvement in the public square. Our agenda is basically negative and reductionistic--like our theology, centered on what we don't believe and what we don't do, as it is self-serving. Past social action served the culture and community as a legitimate end in itself. But recent evangelical engagement has been rude, arrogant, confrontational and self-serving. The public know evangelicals, not as those who are looking out for the good of society, but as those who wish to enforce their own agenda without having to present a good defense for it in the public square. It is worthwhile to contrast the interests of evangelicals in the last century--opposition to child labor and monopolies, insistence on world peace, the minimum wage, women's rights, with their interests today. Perhaps they were as triumphalistic then as many evangelicals are today, but the agendas, with the exception of the movement to prohibit the sale and use of alcohol, could not have been more remotely associated.

As long as fundamentalists and evangelicals have a theology which places them in an adversarial relationship to this world and its culture, they will continue to get involved with art only when trying to censor it; with politics, only when they want to get their way among the other lobbies; with science, only when they want to force teachers to give equal time to a view of which the latter are not convinced; with victims of AIDS, only when we remind them that they deserve it, as if death did not come to the rest of us because of sin, too; with education, only when sex education comes up for discussion. If we cannot get beyond our moralistic, self-righteous, self-serving, and world-despising theology, we cannot hope to overcome the program it produces, nor the negative effects it creates in the culture. Unless we begin to take this world as seriously as God does (in kind, if not in degree), we will continue to create hostility not only toward legitimate Christian involvement in the world, but toward the gospel itself.

If, however, we return to the rich soil of Scripture, which takes this world very seriously (both in its created and fallen reality), we have the potential not only to prepare the way for a new generation of Christian leadership in the culture, but to prepare the way for a renewed interest in the gospel as well.§

1. Eugene F. Rice, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe (NY: Norton & Norton, 1987).
2. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1952).
3. Martin Luther, Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1915-32), vol.2, p.338.
4. John Calvin, Institutes (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3:19:15.
5. Ibid., 3:19:9.

For Further Reading
Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian Man; Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Baker, 1990); Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: The Princeton Lectures (Eerdmans); Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Augsburg); The Works of Francis Schaeffer (Crossway).

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