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D. A. Carson on his book Christ and Culture Revisited

The key to understanding how the church should relate to culture is to have a strong grasp of the major themes in biblical theology.

Preachers apply Scripture to people, and so they cannot help but apply Scripture to culture, for people cannot live in this world without being "clothed" in a particular culture. Yet, interpreting one's own culture in the light of God's Word, and then figuring out what posture to take toward that culture, can be quite a challenge. For that reason, we thought preachers would benefit from our having a conversation with D. A. Carson about his 2008 book, Christ and Culture Revisited.

PreachingToday.com: How do you define culture?

D. A. Carson: The term culture is used in different circles with astonishing diversity. Some preachers use it only with respect to things going on in our country that they don't like—and there might be some genuine reasons for not liking them—so it becomes a "Christ against culture" viewpoint. What's going on in the culture is ______—and then you fill in the blank: pornography, racial hatred, consumerism, whatever. Culture becomes a negative moral value.

Others don't like using the term culture at all because they say each individual is different from other individuals, so the notion of culture is a useless term.

Some people use culture in an old-fashioned sense: he or she is "cultured," meaning they have a posh accent and a better education and so on.

Most people use the term rightly to mean a set of values, habits in mind, associations, and conduct. Often culture is conveyed subliminally in little things: it's not necessarily where you go to school, but your patterns of speech, what you buy, what you wear. These things are passed on from generation to generation, with changes, no doubt. That things get passed on means you aren't talking about merely individualistic preferences; you are talking about broader patterns.

And so culture has neutral aspects. It also has positive aspects that could be aligned with what is true and good. It has aspects that are immoral and opposed to God's truth.

Absolutely. In the broadest sense, for example, language itself is cultural. It's part of the way human beings interact. When you put together a sentence, you are expressing a certain cultural inheritance.

Based on your definition, culture is really the stuff of life, and preachers need to be adept at thinking about this.

That's exactly right. Why are some Christians very concerned about poverty and racism, while other Christians are very concerned about abortion and freedom? Those are things that fall out of how you think about the relationship between Christ and culture.

My book examines how to think about culture fairly, in a biblical fashion, but it does not provide a "how to fix culture" or "how to decide about the upcoming elections," or something like that, because underneath those practical decisions is a need to think about the whole world. How does culture relate to the biblical ideas of world and worldliness? How does it relate to the entire frame of reference in which we live and move and have our being?

Many things in the broader society that Christians argue about turn on what we think about how Christ relates to culture: church-and-state laws, whether there should be prayer in schools, the significance of democracy, what the Bible says about submitting to the state. How does Romans 13 connect with responsibility in American democracy? Church and state notions have developed variously in different countries. France has embraced the separation of church and state since, I think, about 1900. But they mean something very different than what Americans mean. Does either of them have any ground to stand on biblically? In other words all these issues that we're making practical judgments about have an undergirding set of assumptions. In my book I've tried to reason these things out in the light of God's Word, laying the groundwork for responsible thinking.

In the book you analyze Niebuhr's five possible ways of understanding the relationship between Christ and culture, and you reject two of them.

The only approach to culture I reject virtually completely is where Christ is so identified with the culture that all kinds of unacceptable things are acceptable.

One of the worst categories is "Christ against culture." This view is often based on the kinds of passages you find most often in the Book of Revelation—passages where the world is persecuting Christians through the Serpent and the Beast, and Christ stands over and against the culture threatening judgment. In this model the culture is seen as roughly what John means by world, as in 1 John 2:15–17. The world is full of pride and arrogance, and so it just has to be condemned; there's nothing good in it.

I would say that is a strand of Scripture. In some parts of the world you can understand why that view would be more appealing than in other parts of the world—for example, where your surrounding culture is persecuting you. I don't think Abraham Kuyper would have come up with his understanding of the relationship between Christ and culture if he had been born and reared in China circa 1935. So our experiences of life, how we interact with surrounding culture, help shape what biblical texts we lean on as we think about culture.

If we have the view that Niebuhr describes as "Christ transforming culture," then we're not only trying to convert individuals, we're trying to convert the structures of the culture. Think of Kuyper's famous words: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" There are strands in Scripture supporting that: "All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth." There is enough truth in that view that one has to be careful about simply tossing it out. We are called to be salt in a corrupting world, light in a dark world. We are to do good to all men, especially those who belongĀ  to God. In the time of the Exile in Jeremiah 29, the people of God were told to do good in the city.

Our experiences of life help shape what biblical texts we lean on as we think about culture.

On the other hand, there is such an emphasis in the Bible on the distinctiveness of the church, on who is finally saved in the end, on the cohesiveness of the people of God, on the importance of saving people—and not just so you can overthrow some broader injustice in the culture, but so that men and women are prepared for eternity, for resurrection existence. The ultimate hope is not that we get more and more of our structures right, but that Christ returns with a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

What happens in any of these singular lines of thought, if you don't get all the balances of biblical thought right, is that you focus so narrowly on one strand that you lead people astray from the comprehensive vision of the entire Bible. You tend to be so narrowly focused on one heritage that you cannot see other sins, dangers, problems—and the converse, the other glorious ways of thinking through the complexities of how the God of all eternity interacts with fallen, broken, but still image-of-God-bearing sinners.

One of the big aims of my book is to go through the standard ways of looking at these things, which Niebuhr made so popular—his work is seminal to everything else—to analyze these views in light of the great turning points in the Bible, the redemptive points of history: Creation, the Fall, the call of Abraham, the rise of Israel, all the way through to the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, the coming of the Spirit, a new heaven and earth, a new heaven to be gained, hell to be feared, resurrection existence. What one or the other of these Christ-and-culture emphases often do is fasten on to certain points of redemptive history, but not to the global, biblically faithful, comprehensive vision of things, and that's what my book is trying to do.

Your book addresses some of the values of Western culture: secularization, democracy, freedom, power. Talk about how one of these themes relates to the preaching task.

Let's take democracy. Most of us are profoundly grateful to God that we live in a democracy. One can't help but remember Winston Churchill's famous quip that democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all the other kinds. The thing is, when we elevate democracy to the top levels of what is important to us, what do we do when a democratic vote opts for things that fly in the face of what the Bible says?

A friend of mine lived during the communist years in Slovakia, and three weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, with new freedoms bursting out all through central and eastern Europe, he saw porn being sold openly on the streets of Slovakia. The very freedoms that democracy brings may bring freedom to do all kinds of bad things, too. In other words freedom—without the transformation of life that the gospel brings—frees people up for more and more sin and corruption. That doesn't mean the best solution is a crackdown, yet it's not clear how stable a democracy can be if you have freedoms without broad consensus. Then you must impose order more and more by law, policemen, force, until finally you find Christians being constrained in awkward ways and feeling oppressed by the democracy itself. For the thoughtful Christian, it's difficult, when you look at things like this, to make democracy nearly the equivalent of the gospel, or a necessary correlative to the gospel.

The danger in all of this is a growing cynicism about government—but then we must remember that, according to Romans 13, the powers-that-be are ordained by God under his providential rule. We don't need to live our lives in fear; God works things out. We are to live responsibly. God's sovereignty is over both good and evil, not in the way that he stands behind good and evil equivalently—he always hates evil, he always loves the good—but his sovereignty is not conditioned by our ugliness and moral reprobation. He can be trusted.

At the same time, there are preachers who so want to identify Christianity with democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, that they can't see how much evil democracy does. After all, when we appeal to the wisdom of the voters, we're appealing to the wisdom of a great number of sinners. When this country was formed, most of the founders—even those who were not Christians and were simply deists—nevertheless had enough Christian background that they believed human beings couldn't be trusted, that we had tremendous potential for evil. The more power we give people, the more danger there is for corruption and hurtful things.

One of the reasons they set up a tri-part system of checks and balances—the executive, legislative, and judicial branches—was precisely because they didn't want too much power in one place. One reason they set up an electoral college for the final presidential vote was because they were actually afraid of pure democracy. They saw that demagoguery could swing people's votes one way or another, and they thought the intervening college would allow for cooler heads to prevail.

Today, almost no one in the broader American populace thinks of human beings as being intrinsically evil and anti-God. Politicians from all sides speak of the great wisdom of the American people, as if because you have 140 million people voting, or whatever number is, that you have greater wisdom. What you have is 140 million sinners. There is nothing intrinsically and necessarily good about the result of a popular vote. At the end of the day, American democracy is not the new heaven and new earth. The same is true of Canadian democracy and French democracy.

This raises fundamental questions about how Christians ought to work in broader society. Should churches be involved in politics, or should it be individual Christians who are involved while the churches stay out of it? That in turn leads to complex questions about the relationship between what the Old Testament says about politics (where the locus of the people of God was the nation of Israel) and what the New Testament says about politics (where the locus of the people of God is international, in local churches). The locus is not any one nation. Suddenly you realize these matters of democracy touch upon biblical theology, values, the relationship between the individual and the church, some knowledge of history, the ambiguity of power, and so forth. It's good for preachers to have some grasp of these things at a biblically faithful, intuitive level, to shield their listeners from the worst kind of public mistakes.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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