Culture and the Bible
This is not a Christian culture. We are living in an environment that challenges us to continually evaluate what it means to live the Christian life. So how do we respond? The answer begins with the Bible. Our view of culture must include biblical insights. In this essay we will strive to investigate selected passages of Scripture pertaining to culture.
The Golden Calf and the Tabernacle: Judging Culture
Chapters 31-39 of Exodus provide a unique perspective of culture and God’s involvement with it. On one hand the work of man was blessed through the artistry of Bezalel, Oholiab, and other skilled artisans as they cooperated to build the tabernacle (35-39). On the other hand, the work of man in the form of the golden calf was rejected by God (31-34). This contrast serves to suggest a guideline with which we can begin to judge culture.
Chapter 31:1-11 contains God’s initial instructions to Moses concerning the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness. Two important artisans, Bezalel and Oholiab, are recognized by God as being especially gifted for this work. These men were skilled,(1) creative people who were able to contribute significantly to the religious/cultural life of the nation of Israel. But at this point in the narrative the scene changes dramatically.
While Moses was on the mountain with God, the people became impatient and decided to make a god, an idol. This prompted an enraged response from both God and Moses. The end result was tragic: three thousand were slain as a result of their idolatry.
Then the attention of the people was directed toward the building of the tabernacle. Chapters 35-39 contain detailed accounts from God pertaining to the tabernacle, and the subsequent work of the skilled artisans, including Bezalel and Oholiab. The finished product was blessed (39:42-43).
In this brief survey of a portion of Israel’s history we have seen two responses to the work of man’s hands: one negative, the other positive. The people fashioned a piece of art, an idol; the response was negative on the part of God and Moses. The people fashioned another piece of art, the tabernacle; the response was positive and worthy of the blessing of both God and Moses. Why the difference in judgment? The answer is deceptively simple: the intent of the art was evaluated. And it was not a matter of one being “secular” and the other “sacred.” Art, the cultural product, was not the problem. “Just as art can be used in the name of the true God, as shown in the gifts of Bezalel, so it can be used in an idolatrous way, supplanting the place of God and thereby distorting its own nature.”(2)
Art is certainly a vital element of culture. As a result, we should take the lessons of Exodus 31-39 to heart. Our evaluation of culture should include an awareness of intent without being overly sensitive to form. If not, we begin to assign evil incorrectly. As Carl F.H. Henry says, “The world is evil only as a fallen world. It is not evil intrinsically.”(3)
These insights have focused on certain observers of cultural objects as seen in art: God, Moses, and the people of Israel. In the first case God and Moses saw the golden calf from one perspective, the people of Israel from another. In the second case all were in agreement as they observed the tabernacle. The people’s perception changed; they agreed with God’s intent and aesthetic judgement. The lesson is that our cultural life is subject to God.
Entering the Fray
How do you react when you’re out of your comfort zone: your surroundings, friends, and family? Do you cringe and disengage yourself? Or do you boldly make the best of the new locality?
The first chapter of Daniel tells of four young men who were transported to a culture other than their own by a conquering nation, Babylonia. Their response to this condition provides us with insights concerning how we should relate to the culture that surrounds us. Daniel, of course, proves to be the central figure among the four. He is the focus of our attention.
Several facets of this chapter should be noted. First, Daniel and his friends were chosen by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, to serve in his court. They were chosen because of their “intelligence in every branch of wisdom … understanding … discerning knowledge … and ability for serving in the king’s court” (v. 4). Second, they were taught “the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (v. 4). Third, Daniel “made up his mind” that he would not partake of the Babylonian food and drink (v. 8). Fourth, “God granted Daniel favor and compassion” with his superiors even though he and his friends would not partake of the food (v. 9-16). Fifth, “God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom” (v. 17). Sixth, the king found Daniel and his friends to be “ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm” (v. 20).
This synopsis provides us with several important observations. First, evidently there was no attempt on the part of Daniel and his friends to totally separate themselves from the culture, in particular the educational system of that culture. This was a typical response among the ancient Jews. These young men were capable of interacting with an ungodly culture without being contaminated by it. Evangelicals are often paranoid as they live within what is deemed an unchristian culture. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from Daniel concerning a proper response. Of course such a response should be based on wisdom and discernment. That leads us to our second observation.
Second, even though Daniel and his companions learned from the culture, they did so by practicing discernment. They obviously compared what they learned of Babylonian thought with what they already understood from God’s point of view. The Law of God was something with which they were well acquainted. Edward Young’s comments on v. 17 clarify this: “The knowledge and intelligence which God gave to them … was of a discerning kind, that they might know and possess the ability to accept what was true and to reject what was false in their instruction.”(4) Such perception is greatly needed among evangelicals. A separatist, isolationist mentality creates moral and spiritual vacuums throughout our culture. We should replace those vacuums with ideas that are spawned in the minds of Godly thinkers and doers.
Third, God approved of their condition within the culture and even gave them what was needed to influence it (v. 17).
Evangelicals may be directed by God to enter a foreign culture that may not share their worldview. Or, they may be directed to enter the culture that surrounds them, which, as with contemporary western culture, can be devoid of the overt influence of a Christian worldview. If so, they should do so with an understanding that the Lord will protect and provide. And He will demonstrate His power through them as the surrounding culture responds.
The World in the New Testament
In and of: two simple words that can stimulate a lot of thought when it comes to what the Bible says about culture, or the world. After all, we are to be in the world but not of it. Let’s see what the New Testament has to say.
The terms kosmos and aion, both of which are generally translated “world,” are employed numerous times in the New Testament. A survey of kosmos will provide important insights. George Eldon Ladd presents usages of the word:(5)
First, the world can refer to “both the entire created order (Jn. 17:5, 24) and the earth in particular (Jn. 11:9; 16:21; 21:25).”(6) This means “there is no trace of the idea that there is anything evil about the world.”(7) Second, “kosmos can designate not only the world but also those who inhabit the world: mankind (12:19; 18:20; 7:4; 14:22).”(8) Third, “the most interesting use of kosmos … is found in the sayings where the world – mankind – is the object of God’s love and salvation.”(9)
But men, in addition to being the objects of God’s love, are seen “as sinful, rebellious, and alienated from God, as fallen humanity. The kosmos is characterized by wickedness (7:7), and does not know God (17:25) nor his emissary, Christ (1:10).”(10) “Again and again … the world is presented as something hostile to God.”(11) But Ladd reminds us that “what makes the kosmos evil is not something intrinsic to it, but the fact that it has turned away from its creator and has become enslaved to evil powers.”(12)
So what is the Christian’s responsibility in this evil, rebellious world? “The disciples’ reaction is not to be one of withdrawal from the world, but of living in the world, motivated by the love of God rather than the love of the world.”(13) “So his followers are not to find their security and satisfaction on the human level as does the world, but in devotion to the redemptive purpose of God” (17:17, 19).(14)
The apostle Paul related that “`worldliness’ consists of worshipping the creature rather than the creator (Rom. 1:25), of finding one’s pride and glory on the human and created level rather than in God. The world is sinful only insofar as it exalts itself above God and refuses to humble itself and acknowledge its creative Lord.”(15) The world is seen as it should be seen when we first worship its creator.
This summary of kosmos contributes several points that can be applied to our survey. First, the world is hostile toward God; this includes the rebellion of mankind. Second, this hostility was not part of the original created order; the world was created good. Third, this world is also the object of God’s redemptive love and Christ’s sacrifice. Fourth, the world is not to be seen as an end in itself. We are always to view culture in the light of eternity. Fifth, we are to be about the business of transforming the world. “We are not to follow the world’s lead but to cut across it and rise above it to a higher calling and style.”(16) Or, as Ronald Allen says: “Ours is a world of lechery and war. It is also a world of the good, the beautiful, and the lovely. Eschew lechery; embrace the lovely– and live for the praise of God in the only world we have!”(17)
We are in need of a balance that does not reject beauty, but at the same time recognizes the ugly. Our theology should entail both. The world needs to see this.
Corinthians and Culture
“You’re a Corinthian!” If you had heard that exclamation in New Testament times you would know that the person who said it was very upset. To call someone a Corinthian was insulting. Even non- Christians recognized that Corinth was one of the most immoral cities in the known world.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains many indications of this. The believers in Corinth were faced with a culture which resembled ours in several ways. It was diverse ethnically, religiously, and philosophically. It was a center of wealth, literature, and the arts. And it was infamous for its blatant sexual immorality. How would Paul advise believers to respond to life in such a city?
That question can be answered by concentrating on several principles that can be discovered in Paul’s letter. We will highlight only a few of these by focusing on certain terms.
Liberty is a foundational term for Christians entering the culture, but it can be misunderstood easily. This is because some act as if it implies total freedom. But “The believer’s life is one of Christian liberty in grace.”(18) Paul wrote, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (6:12, 10:23). It must be remembered, though, that this liberty is given to glorify God. A liberty that condones sin is another form of slavery. Thus, “Whether … you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31). In addition, we must be aware of how our liberty is observed by non-believers. Again Paul wrote, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (10:32).
Conscience is another term that figures prominently in how we enter the culture. We must be very sensitive to what it means to defile the conscience. There must be a sensitivity to what tempts us. “The believer who cannot visit the world without making it his home has no right to visit at his weak points.”19 As a result, we need to cultivate the discipline that is needed to respond to the ways the Spirit speaks through our conscience.
Yet another term is brother. In particular, we should be aware of becoming a “stumbling block” to the person Paul calls a “weaker brother.” This does not mean that we disregard what has been said about liberty. “A Christian need not allow his liberty to be curtailed by somebody else. But he is obliged to take care that that other person does not fall into sin and if he would hurt that ther person’s conscience he has not fulfilled that obligation.”(20) This requires a special sensitivity to others, which is a hallmark of the Christian life.
On many occasions the Probe staff has experienced the challenge of applying these principles. For example, some of us speak frequently in a club in an area of Dallas, Texas called “Deep Ellum.” The particular club in which we teach includes a bar, concert stage, and other things normally associated with such a place. Some refer to the clientele as “Generation Xers” who are often nonconformists. We can use our liberty to minister in the club, but we must do so with a keen awareness of the principles we have discussed. When we enter that culture, which is so different from what we normally experience, we must do so by applying the wisdom found in God’s Word to the Corinthians.
Encountering the World
How do you get a hearing when you have something to say? In particular, how do you share the truth of God in ungodly surroundings?
Paul’s encounter with Athenian culture (Acts 17:16-34) is illustrative of the manner in which we can dialogue with contemporary culture. His interaction exhibits an ability to communicate with a diversity of the population, from those in the marketplace to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. And he exhibits an understanding of the culture, including its literature and art. Paul was relating a model for how we can relate our faith effectively. That is, we must communicate with language and examples that can be understood by our audience.
Verse 16 says that Paul’s “spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols.” We should note that the verb translated “provoked” here is the Greek word from which we derive the term paroxysm. Paul was highly irritated. In addition, we should note that the verb is imperfect passive, implying that his agitation was a logical result of his Christian conscience and that it was continuous. The idolatry which permeated Athenian culture stimulated this dramatic response. Application: the idolatry of contemporary culture should bring no less a response from us. Materialism, Individualism, Relativism, and Secularism are examples of ideologies that have become idols in our culture.
Verses 17 and 18 refer to several societal groups: Jews, God- fearing Gentiles, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, as well as the general population, namely “those who happened to be present.” Evidently Paul was able to converse with any segment of the population. Application: as alert, thinking, sensitive, concerned, discerning Christians we are challenged to confront our culture in all of its variety and pluralism. It is easier to converse with those who are like-minded, but that is not our only responsibility.
In verse 18 some of the philosophers call Paul an “idle babbler” (i.e., one who makes his living by picking up scraps). Application: we should realize that the Christian worldview, in particular the basic tenets of the gospel, will often elicit scorn from a culture that is too often foreign to Christian truth. This should not hinder us from sharing the truth.
The narrative of verses 19-31 indicates that Paul knew enough about Athenian culture to converse with it on the highest intellectual level. He was acutely aware of the “points of understanding” between him and his audience. He was also acutely aware of the “points of disagreement” and did not hesitate to stress them. He had enough knowledge of their literary expressions to quote their spokesmen (i.e., their poets), even though this does not necessarily mean Paul had a thorough knowledge of them. And he called them to repentance. Application: we need to “stretch” ourselves more intellectually so that we can duplicate Paul’s experience more frequently. The most influential seats in our culture are too often left to those who are devoid of Christian thought. Such a condition is in urgent need of change.
Paul experienced three reactions in Athens (vv. 32-34). First, “some began to sneer” (v. 32). They expressed contempt. Second, some said “We shall hear you again concerning this” (v. 32). Third, “some men joined him and believed” (v. 34). We should not be surprised when God’s message is rejected; we should be prepared when people want to hear more; and we can rejoice when the message falls on fertile soil and bears the fruit of a changed life.
We have seen that Scripture is not silent regarding culture. It contains much by way of example and precept, and we have only begun the investigation. There is more to be done. With this expectation in mind, what have we discovered from the Bible at this stage?
First, in some measure God “is responsible for the presence of culture, for he created human beings in such a way that they are culture-producing beings.”(21) Second, God holds us responsible for cultural stewardship. Third, we should not fear the surrounding culture; instead, we should strive to contribute to it through God- given creativity, and transform it through dialogue and proclamation. Fourth, we should practice discernment while living within culture. Fifth, the products of culture should be judged on the basis of intent, not form. Or, to simply further:
We advance the theory that God’s basic attitude toward culture is that which the apostle Paul articulates in I Corinthians 9:19-22. That is, he views human culture primarily as a vehicle to be used by him and his people for Christian purposes, rather than as an enemy to be combatted or shunned.(22)
Let us use the vehicle for the glory of God!
1. The word “skill,” which is frequently employed to describe artisans in these chapters (NASB), is from the Hebrew word hakam, meaning “wise.” One of its main synonyms is bin, basically meaning “discernment”. Thus, the skillful person is one who, in the minds of the Israelites, was also “wise” and “discerning” in his artistry.
2. Gene Edward Veith, The Gift of Art: The Place of the Arts in Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 31.
3. Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), 420.
4. Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 48-49.
5. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974). In particular, see chapters 17 and 29.
6. Ibid., 225.
9. Ibid., 226.
11. Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F.H. Henry, eds. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), s.v. “World, Worldliness,” by Everett F. Harrison.
12. Ladd, 226.
13. Ibid., 227.
15. Ibid., 400.
16. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985), 209.
17. Ronald B. Allen, The Majesty of Man: The Dignity of Being Human (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1984), 191.
18. Henry, 420.
19. Ibid., 428.
20. F.W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), 243.
©1996 Probe Ministries.