The Only Christian Culture Is the Church: Part 1

American Christians, as far as I can tell, are under the spell of neo-Calvinism. In the finest critique that I’ve read on neo-Calvinism, Reformed theologian David VanDrunen writes:

Obviously neo-Calvinism did not set out to decimate the church, but to raise other institutions to a level of (equal) importance – all with very good intentions to protect against cultural indifference and to give meaning to all areas of life. The church, unfortunately for neo-Calvinism, is not the sort of institution designed by Christ to be one among equals for Christians. Neo-Calvinism has not only made little noticeable progress in transforming Western civilization (or even Holland, or South Holland), but it has to an alarming degree lost the importance and uniqueness of the church along the way as well. It certainly has done no better than earlier Reformed Christianity in resisting the temptation of theological liberalism and other contemporary religious fads.

Ultimately, however, neo-Calvinism needs to be questioned not because of its struggle to accomplish what it set out to do but because it is so foreign to the message of the New Testament. The idea that the heart and soul of Christianity consists in the transformation of existing cultures is arrestingly and glaringly absent from New Testament teaching. Time and again the New Testament emphasizes the present suffering of Christians, the transitory and fleeting nature of the things of this world, heavenly citizenship, and the hope of the age to come. The things that it says about broader cultural affairs are so infrequent and so sparse – basically, submit to legitimate authority and work hard – that it is quite incredible to think that Christ and his apostles intended to instill a vision akin to the neo-Calvinist world and life view. The neo-Calvinist case from the New Testament rests upon a handful of scattered verses – the kingdom as a leaven, the groaning of creation, every thought captive, the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the new Jerusalem – that sound inspiring out of context but do no make the case intended. The burden of the New Testament is about as far away as imaginable from imparting an agenda of cultural transformation. 

The Lord Jesus Christ did not come to raise up followers who would transform the cultures of the world. Christ came as the Last Adam to achieve the original goal of the First Adam under the covenant of works: the new heaven and new earth. By his perfect obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension Christ has succeeded. By virtue of his achievement Christians, by faith, share in his verdict of justification, his heavenly citizenship, and his everlasting inheritance. Redemption does not put Christians back on track to accomplish the original goal of the First Adam through their own cultural work – Christ has already done that on their behalf perfectly and finally. Misunderstanding this point is perhaps the fatal flaw of neo-Calvinism. Until the day when Christ returns he has ordained that his people be pilgrims in this world and be gathered together in the church.

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of the fact that the church was the only institution that the Lord Jesus established in this world during his earthly ministry. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God; that is, the new creation, the original goal of the human race under the covenant of works. Yet if we scour the Gospels we find but one institution that Jesus associates with the kingdom and but one to which Jesus points to find the power and the ethic of the kingdom at work here and now. Jesus did not establish the family or civil government, but simply affirmed their legitimacy. He did not lay out plans for kingdom business. Families, governments, and businesses already existed under God’s providential rule and were common in the cultures of this world long before the kingdom was announced. Jesus established the church. Unlike the cultural institutions of this world, Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church alone. He entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the church alone. He commissioned disciplinary procedures reflecting the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount for the church alone. He promised, to the church alone, that where two or three are gathered in his name he himself will be there among them.

Christ came, in other words, not to transform the cultures of this world, but to win the kingdom of God, the new creation, which will be cataclysmically revealed out of heaven on the last day, and to establish the church, for the time being, as a counter-cultural institution that operates not according to the cultures of this world but in anticipation of the life of the age-to-come. The church has its own doctrine, its own worship, its own government, its own discipline, its own ministry of mercy, and its own strange ethic of non-violence and forgiveness that defies the wisdom of this world. Jesus and his apostles did exert great effort to shape a culture: the church’s culture. The New Testament makes clear, of course, that Christians must live and work among the cultures of this world, and should be just, honest, loving, and industrious as they do so. But the only culture-shaping task in which the New Testament shows any serious interest is the formation of the church. In light of such considerations I suggest that the only Christian culture – in the profoundest sense of the term – is found in the ministry and fellowship of true churches of Christ operating according to the teaching of Scripture alone (148-149).

– Calvin, Kuyper, and “Christian Culture” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, edited by R. Scott Clark & Joel E. Kim. See Part 2.

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3 thoughts on “The Only Christian Culture Is the Church: Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Only Christian Culture is the Church: Part 2 | Bensonian

  2. Pingback: Two Kingdom Resources « Notes from a Small Place

  3. Pingback: On Matthew Lee Anderson and the New Radicals | Bensonian

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