After my post the other day, I did a little more digging on the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. In the midst of my mini-research flurry I found a classic article by Bavinck on Calvin’s doctrine of common grace, which I highly recommend. Not only is it a top-notch exposition of Calvin’s view of culture and common grace, it is also the work of one of the architects of that great and still influential movement of Dutch Neo-Calvinism. (Not Mark Driscoll and John Piper–think dead guys).
In the introduction to the article he gives his own brief sketch of “certain lines” which Scripture draws for us to understand how we should think about culture and cultural production:
It proceeds on the principle that for man God is the supreme good. Whatever material or ideal possessions the world may offer, all these taken together cannot outweigh or even be compared with this greatest of all treasures, communion with God; and hence, in case of conflict with this, they are to be unconditionally sacrificed. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.” This, however, does not hinder earthly possessions from retaining a relative value. Considered in themselves they are not sinful or unclean; so long as they do not interfere with man’s pursuit of the kingdom of heaven, they are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving. Scripture avoids, both extremes, no less that of asceticism on the one hand than that of libertinism on the other hand.
The recognition of this as a principle appears most clearly in its teaching that all things, the entire world with all its treasures, including matter and the body, marriage and labor, are created and ordained of God; and that Christ, although, when He assumed a true and perfect human nature, He renounced all these things in obedience to God’s command, yet through His resurrection too them all back as henceforth purified of all sin and consecrated through the Spirit. Creation, incarnation, and resurrection are the fundamental facts of Christianity and at the same time the bulwarks against all error in life and doctrine.
This quote doesn’t cover everything, of course. Still, Bavinck calls our attention to four points Christians need to keep in mind when thinking about cultural life:
- God is the good to which all other goods point and to whom none can compare. Focusing on or choosing any created reality over the Creator is spiritual insanity.
- At the same time earthly, material, and cultural goods have relative value as long as our enjoyment of them doesn’t descend into idolatry. After all, they are the creation of God. He made them to be enjoyed with gratitude as his gift.
- The Gospel should lead neither to ascetism, nor libertinism; not legalism or license. In other words, a pint’s fine, just don’t get plastered and run around with your pants on your head.
- Christ, though he sacrificed all human material and cultural goods, has redeemed all in his life, death, and resurrection.
Now, Bavinck goes on to take account for human sin, depravity, and our natural tendency towards idolatry. He points out that in the first few centuries of Christianity, the church had to take a very contrasting stance towards the broader culture because all the cultural institutions of the day were tangled up in explicit idolatry. This is a point we ought to remember as well. At times in our rush to “enjoy culture” we fail to discern the way culture has gone wrong and too easily accommodate ourselves to its prevailing consumerism and nihilistic self-indulgence. Still, any criticism or antithesis against the culture we engage in needs to be set within the broader context of affirming the God’s good creation. The problem isn’t having some stuff, it’s obsessing over stuff and denying justice to the poor in our acquisition of it; the problem isn’t sex, it’s the abuse and perversion of sex as a unitive act into a self-centered assertion of the ultimacy of my own wants and desires.
Boiling it down to one verse, we need to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy that, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim 4:14) This keeps us both from gnostic rejection of what God has made and pagan idolatry of it. Instead, culture becomes an opportunity for joyful gratitude overflowing into the worship of the Triune God.
Soli Deo Gloria