It is more correct to ask what the role of culture is in religion than to put the question the other way around. For man, in the deepest reaches of his being, is religious; he is determined by his relationship to God. Religion, to paraphrase the poet’s expressive phrase, is not of life a thing apart, it is man’s whole existence. John A. Hutchison comes to the same conclusion when he says, “For religion is not one aspect or department of life beside the others, as modern secular thought likes to believe; it consists rather in the orientation of all human life to the absolute” (Faith, Reason and Existence, p. 211). Tillich has captured the idea in a penchant line, “Religion is the substance of culture and culture the form of religion” (The Protestant Era, p. 57).

The Westminster Shorter Catechism maintains at the outset that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. However other-worldly this may sound to some, Presbyterians have interpreted this biblically to mean that man is to serve God in his daily calling. This service cannot be expressed except through man’s cultural activity, which gives expression to his religious faith. Now faith is the function of the heart, and out of the heart are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23).

The Whole Of Life

From the secularist’s point of view, the religious interest of man, although it may be conceded to be important, is merely one of his interests in life. Therefore, from his point of view, to define man in terms of this relationship is arbitrary. For, although man is undeniably concerned with God (the numinous realm), he is also related to nature and to the whole world of the spirit. The answer to this view is that man in all his other relationships is engaged within the cosmos; to use Solomon’s telling phrase, man is busy in his culture under the sun (Eccl. 1:3). But man’s relationship to God, according to Scripture, is trans-cosmical and supratemporal. For God is not only immanent in the world, he also transcends creation and time, giving man the promise of fellowship with him in eternity. The religious relationship is not terminated by death, as is the marital relationship, in which the partners promise their troth “till death do us part.” In his presence is fullness of joy; this is the blessed promise of Christianity. Whereas death ends all of our works and our relationships under the sun, it is at the same time the transition into the stage of fulfilled communion of which David testifies, “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with beholding thy form” (Ps. 17:15), “And I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah for ever” (Ps. 23:6). Paul testifies that for him to live is Christ, but to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).

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It is quite true, of course, that one may abstract one aspect of man as a Gegenständ (object) for scientific purposes and speak of the biological, psychological, social, historical, juridical, economic, aesthetic, moral or pistical (from Greek pistis, faith) functions of man. However, none of these properly define man. He is more than any and more than all of these combined, for underneath and within these aspects there is the principle of unity that integrates the whole being as personal. That core of man’s being, that irreducible center, that concentration point of all man’s functions which transcends time is called the “heart” according to Scripture (Prov. 4:23; 23:26). The heart, in this biblical usage, is the religious root of man’s existence, it is the fullness of one’s personality. Thinking is merely one of the many expressions of human nature; it is one of the issues of life, of which Scripture says that they are all out of the heart; hence the heart must be kept above all that is to be guarded. Dr. Kuyper calls the heart the mystic root of our existence, that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided.

God And The Heart

Scripture’s testimony on this point is abundant. When the Lord through the prophet Joel calls on his people to repent, he says, “rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto Jehovah your God” (2:13); when David prays for the renovation of his whole being to remove the grievous wound of sin, he cries out in anguish of soul, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). In the New Testament, when our Lord wanted to indicate the fullness of man’s corruption, he says to his disciples that the evils of fornication, murder, thefts, et cetera come out of the heart (Mark 7:20–23). Paul assures us that a man believes with his heart unto righteousness (Rom. 10:10). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews warns against the evil of apostasy, which again is a heart problem: “Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). When Scripture speaks concerning the basic religious relationship of man to God, both in sin and salvation, it emphasizes that the undivided unity, the center of man’s existence, can only be found in his heart.

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Since religion is rooted in the heart, it is therefore totalitarian in nature. It does not so much consummate culture as give culture its foundation, and serves as the presupposition of every culture. Even when faith and its religious root are openly denied, it is nevertheless tacitly operative, as in atheistic communism. A truly secular culture has never been found, and it is doubtful whether American materialism can be called secular. Even communism, like nazism, has its gods and devils, its sin and salvation, its priests and its liturgies, its paradise of the stateless society of the future. For religious faith always transcends culture and is the integrating principle and power of man’s cultural striving. Kroner stresses the subjective side of religion when he says: “Since faith is the ultimate and all-embracing power in the human soul, nothing whatever can remain untouched by it. The whole personality is, as it were, informed by one’s faith” (Culture and Faith, pp. 209, 210). Therefore, religion has the power of integrating man’s culture through his faith, because it rises above all culture, it being no part of culture as such, but the mystical experience of apprehending God in the relation of the covenant.

Culture And Cultus

Religion, is then to be distinguished from but not separated from culture. Just so it is with cultus, in which man’s religious aspirations come to expression in acts of worship, prayer, and praise. Culture and cultus are the two streams that proceed out of man’s religious experience; they together constitute his activity under the sun. The common designation of our acts of devotion is called worship, but the anthropologists usually employ the more technical term, “cultus.” For purposes of parallelism and symmetry the term is here employed as the counterpart of culture. Our Reformed Fathers, who employed the Latin, made their motto, ora et labora (pray and work), while we usually speak of worship and work, to divide the activities of life. Sunday is set aside for worship, both individually and collectively; but “six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work!” Scripture leaves no room for the idea that worship is not well pleasing unto the Lord. Let the reader but remember the Psalms of David, the devotions of Jesus and his apostles and, lastly, the worship of the redeemed in heaven. To say that God, the Lord, does not demand worship of his creature, but only service is altogether contrary to the Scriptures and the spirit of religion. Religion, then, has these two aspects, indeed, not mutually exclusive inasmuch as one may well pray and sing while working with his hands. This is the essence of true religion; faith must inform one’s whole being. To restrict religion either to acts of worship, or to deeds of service, is to break asunder what God hath joined together; for God, the Lord, demands both worship and work. Religion consists of cultus and culture.

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The religious relationship, which is trans-cosmic and so transcends time, while including all of a man’s historical existence, is beyond logical analysis. It is the one fundamental presupposition of all man’s reasoning, but is itself beyond logical apprehension since our existence in the covenant with God is as such unfathomable and is a matter of being, not of function. Therefore, the religious foundation of life makes philosophy possible and is not itself a philosophical question, for it lies beyond the border of philosophical investigation. It is only in his religion, through faith, that man knows himself and his calling in relation to God. Self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness.

The Wrong Turn

Apostate religion is the result of fear (anxiety) which characterizes the life of apostate man. This is clearly seen in the case of Cain after he had murdered his brother Abel. Apostatizing mankind, with its pseudo religion, tries to ward off evil and safeguard life by many sacral ceremonies. Thus the whole of the realm of the sacred becomes functional and is brought under the category of the cultic, under sacerdotal jurisdiction. Thus the distinction between religion and culture is obliterated, since every activity of life assumes cultic proportions and significance. Hence the ubiquity of the witch-doctor.

Since the church, or some form of organized religion, usually has charge of all cultic practices, the dire result in history has been that all of life falls under the hierarchical aegis. When, in the providence of God, the Gospel is preached in a primitive culture in which this cultic totalitarianism obtains, it is most difficult to deliver such a culture from sacerdotal influences and to teach the distinction between the spiritual relationship which is true religion and the cultic observance which is an external manifestation of religion. The medieval Church exercised such control over the whole life of its members through the priesthood, and it took the Protestant Reformation to break the stranglehold of the hierarchy in the Western world.

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On the other hand, the danger of secularism, the denial that religion is significant for the whole of life, separating certain areas to which religion has no access, is equally false and pernicious. It constitutes a threat to modern culture and is essentially a false religion. This is the fault of those who tear the sacred robe of life into sacred and profane, and proceed to shut God and his claims out from the latter. This is the sin of Esau, of whom we read that he was a profane person (Heb. 12:16), since he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Calvinism has ever maintained that God has a claim to man’s whole being. Religion, for the Calvinist, is a radical venture since it controls the root of man’s existence and from thence permeates his whole functional world. Religion, as such, is pre-functional, and man’s cultus is but one function of that religion, under the administration of the Church.

False Religion And Culture

The radical, totalitarian character of religion is such, then, that it determines both man’s cultus and his culture. That is to say, the conscious or unconscious relationship to God in a man’s heart determines all of his activities, whether theoretical or practical. This is true of philosophy which is based upon a nontheoretical, religious presupposition. Thus man’s morality and economics, his jurisprudence and his aesthetics, are all religiously oriented and determined. This is why apostasy produces not only a false religion but also a false culture, namely a culture which does not seek God and serve him as the highest good. This apostate culture came to florescence in the days of Lamech’s sons who invented musical instruments, movable dwellings, and instruments of war. Witness the sword song of apostate culture, man glorifying himself and seeking his own gratification and revenge (Gen. 4:16–24). This spirit also motivated the builders of the tower of Babel when men refused to fulfill the cultural mandate to propagate the race and to subdue the earth. This apostate culture reached its apotheosis in ancient times in Nebuchadnezzar who proudly boasted of the magnificent Babylon that he had built and defied the God of heaven. For this he was cast from his high estate to learn humility, feeding on grass with the animals for seven long years until he learned to bless the Most High, and to praise and honor him that liveth forever, to acknowledge that “all his works are truth and his ways justice; and those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Dan. 4:37).

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There can be no doubt that the historical antagonism of Christianity to pagan culture was due, to a large extent, to its apostate character. Not only did Christians shun idolatry with its cultic practices, but Christians also shunned the theatre, military service (due to the impact of apostate religion in requiring emperor worship), and many social customs that were sinful. Not only did believers oppose the worship of Venus and Bacchus as idolatry, but also the accompanying sexual promiscuity, fornication, revelry, and drunkenness. They turned away from all the popular sports of the arena, the evidence of a decadent Roman culture. Small wonder that they condemned the erotic contemporary culture which was identified with paganism itself. Pagan preoccupation with cultic ritual had also contaminated certain cultural forms and customs so that Christians abstained altogether, as in meat sacrificed to idols. Even A. Kuyper, that genial advocate of culture, admits: “As long, therefore, as the struggle with Paganism remained a struggle for life or death, the relation of Christianity to art could not but be an hostile one” (Calvinism, p. 157).

Christianity And Society

However, there is a tension with non-Christian culture, not merely on the basis of its decadence and moral degradation, but also in its more exalted expressions as in certain forms of art, where the subject is captivated and gradually estranged from the rule of Christ to some form of aestheticism. Although the Bible calls man a rebel in his state of apostasy, this rebellion may be camouflaged in elevated forms, profound thought, artistic rapture or some idealistic projection of the mind. T. S. Eliot holds that the difference between a neutral and a pagan society is of minor importance since they both negate Christianity (The Idea of a Christian Society, pp. 45). However, the neutral, scientific negativity of an effete liberalism proposing nostrums for the healing of the nations is no match for the strident paganism of our day. The problem of living a Christian life in a non-Christian society is pressing, since most of our social institutions are non-Christian and advertising is in pagan hands. The family remains the only trustworthy transmitter of Christian culture (Ibid., pp. 20,22). Eliot hits the nail on the head when he says: “However bigoted the announcement may sound, the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society … which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians” (Ibid., p. 33). But Christians would have to insist upon a unified religious social code of behaviour and education would be Christian in the sense “that its aims will be directed by a Christian philosophy of life” (Ibid., p. 37).

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This, then, is the problem for God’s people in our day. Every pagan religion has its own cultural expression; medieval Christianity developed its own culture, albeit controlled by the Church under sacerdotal tutelage. Ever since the advent of the Copernican, Darwinian, and Kantian revolutions, humanism has introduced a new paganism, so that Christianity no longer controls the media of culture, and it is no longer the motivating power in the cultural urge of the West. Today the West faces a cultural crisis of the first magnitude. Our culture has been uprooted, because for most men God is dead. And the gods which men have made for themselves have failed, and “what else is there left?” This is the tragic cry not only of the Existentialist philosophers, poets and playwrights, but of the mass man of our day.

It is certainly folly for God’s people to think that they can live in two separate worlds, one for their religious life and devotional exercises, and the other usurping all other time, energy, money—an area in which the priests of secularism are calling the numbers. One cannot keep on evangelizing the world without interfering with the world’s culture. It devolves upon God’s people, therefore, to contend for such a “condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives (italics added) and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christians” (Ibid., p. 97). To divide life into areas of sacred and secular is to lose sight of man’s true end.

Those who see the great danger of a diluted religion in the externalism of a Christian society have a real point. Such a society constitutes a hindrance to conversion, as many a preacher can testify, “tending so to inoculate men with a mild form of Christian religiosity as to render them immune from the grand infection” (John Baillie, What is a Christian Civilization?, p. 37).

There are those who would revert to some form of Anabaptistic separatism, with the words of Paul as motto: “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:17), while others hold that the concept of a Christian culture has always been a snare and a delusion, an unrealizable dream under terrestrial conditions. The Barthians have specially repudiated the idea of a Christian culture in our day. For them there is no single form of social, political, economic order that is more in the spirit of the Gospel than another. However, the poverty of this one-sided eschatology, apart from any theological strictures one might have, is that it does not allow for the power of God’s grace to change men and society here and now. For Barth, it is not man as sinner who lies under the judgment of God, but man as “creature” with all his culture who is under judgment. This false antithesis between God and man, between eternity and time is not scriptural but belongs in the Kierkegaardian, existentialistic frame of reference.

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To conclude, religion and culture are inseparable. Every culture is animated by religion. True religion covers the whole range of man’s existence. The basic covenantal relationship in which man stands to God comes to expression both in his cultus and his culture. Hence culture is never something adventitious, the color added as in the case of oranges and oleomargarine, to satisfy the eye. Kroner’s suggestion that the story of the Fall belongs in a category with that of Prometheus, who stole the divine fire and thus began man’s cultural achievements, for which he was punished, is wrong. This would make man’s cultural striving a doubtful addition to the divine intention (Op. cit., p. 67). This is surely an egregious misinterpretation of the biblical narrative which presents man as both creature of and co-worker with God to fulfill his creative will from the beginning. The first sin of man was an act of disloyalty in accepting Satan’s interpretation concerning the cosmos and man’s place in it, instead of living by the word of God’s revelation. Kroner is right in holding that man never regains paradise by his own efforts, but he is most certainly wrong in holding that culture as such is to be blamed for man’s tragic fiasco. In the final analysis Kroner cannot reach an integration of culture and faith because he sees the antithesis between God and Satan as a tension immanent in “creation” from the outset (Ibid., p. 255). This is not theologically reprehensible since reconciliation is changed from an ethical transaction centering in the vicarious atonement of Christ on Calvary to an ontological (that which pertains to being) one, thereby shifting the central message of the Gospel to the “incarnation.” But on this basis, no Christian culture is possible, since all of man’s works are under the judgment of God on the basis of their creatureliness. However, in Christ man is restored to God as cultural creature to serve his Maker in the world, and to rule over the world for God’s sake.

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Preacher In The Red


Our homiletics professor had been impressing upon us the value of capturing our audience with the first sentence in a sermon. I had prepared a sort of folksy, intimate kind of talk for the following Sunday, and to start it off in proper fashion, I leaned impressively out over the pulpit for a few seconds, and then said: “My dear friends, I am not going to preach a sermon this morning …” and before I got the next phrase started, a small boy in the front seat threw up his hands and shouted: “Hurrah.”—The Rev. EMERSON J. SANDERSON, Wailuku Union Church, Wailuku, Hawaii.

Henry R. Van Til is Associate Professor of Bible at Calvin College and cofounder of Torch and Trumpet. He holds the A.B. from Calvin College, Th.B. from Calvin Seminary and Th.M. from Westminster Seminary. His book on The Calvinistic Concept of Culture has just been published.

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