Cultural Apologetics: Common Grace and Antithesis

John Calvin is generally regarded as the originator of the concept of common grace. He was searching for an answer to the question of how unbelievers who are entirely corrupted by sin can be intellectually endowed and can contribute to art, science, and other social goods.

Calvin taught that art and science are excellent benefits given to every man by the Spirit of God as he wills for the common good of mankind. He anticipated the objection to the Spirit’s interaction with unbelievers when he said that God “fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation.”[1] As a result we can be helped in many scientific disciplines pursued by unbelievers, and we ought to use their assistance. The usefulness of unbelievers’ minds and talents reveals  “some remaining traces of the image of God, which distinguish the entire human race from the other creatures.”[2] Yet, said Calvin, at the same time we enjoy the fruits of common grace in the lives of unbelievers, we cannot forget that they are completely in darkness when it comes to spiritual truth. “For wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness.”[3] The antithesis between the truth and the unbeliever’s rebellious and autonomous attempts at an alternative is absolute.

Understanding this theological truth helps us to assess the behavior of the unbeliever more accurately. Everything an unbeliever does, thinks and says either reveals his attempt to live as if God did not exist, or it reveals the truth of God that he cannot restrain. The cultural expressions of unbelievers, therefore, either reflect an obvious attempt to suppress the truth (which can serve as a display of the truth of the fallenness of man), or the cultural expressions reflect the unsuppressed image of God in man. In the latter case, the cultural expression accurately displays truth, even when the creator of it is not a believer.

This approach to culture, then, gives no carte blanche approval to any cultural expression (not even classical music and high art), since it also recognizes that even the best culture is produced by sinners. Every cultural expression must be evaluated by the criteria of to what degree does it reveal, obscure or deny the truth. Rather than a simplistic approach, then, a more nuanced (and I believe, biblical) approach is needed. Culture ought to be evaluated on how clearly it expresses the truth. Now, obviously there are limits to this. Scripture is clear that we are not to set our eyes on wicked or worthless things (Ps. 101:3; 119:37; 101:7). We are not to converse about those wicked things that are done in secret (Eph. 5:11-12). Displays of gratuitous violence and nudity, and anything that glorifies wickedness are strictly forbidden. However, this does not preclude appropriately accurate displays of the wickedness of evil, the destructive nature of sin, the ugliness of pride and greed.

In Part 4 we will look at specific examples of cultural expressions by unbelievers and how they can be used as apologetic tools in reaching unbelievers with the gospel.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill,  trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 2.2.16.

[2] Ibid., 2.2.17.

[3] Ibid., 2.2.21.

Cultual Apologetics: Approaches to Culture

When most believers think of apologetics, they tend to think of historical and philosophical defenses of the Christian faith against attacks by unbelievers. And so it is. But there are other aspects to apologetics. One of the most fascinating to me personally is the area of cultural apologetics. Many Christians have never heard of cultural apologetics or seen it demonstrated, partly because they have been taught an anemic approach to cultural. They have been taught that all cultural expressions produced by unbelievers (except classical music and high art) are rife with worldliness, dangerous, and totally worthless.

One of the reasons this is an attractive approach to culture is that for the average Christian, no thinking is required. The commendations or condemnations of a particular cultural expression (TV show, novel, song, etc.) come down from above, and the dutiful believer simply adds the item in question to his list of approved or forbidden activities. No need for the individual to discern or to concede that the expression may fall into the category of Christian liberty, where two godly brothers may disagree on its benefit to them (Rom. 14:5).

This approach to cultural, however, is, as I said, anemic. I have found that it breeds over-sensitive consciences and secret lives. Because no good or biblical reasons are given for the approval/disapproval, the compliant obey the edict and the defiant consume it in secret anyway. The person in the pew starts to feel guilty about almost any engagement with activities in this world. And because the list of taboos is so arbitrary, equally zealous groups practicing almost identical restrictions are separated from, because they aren’t exactly identical. This breeds pride of place and irrational “convictions” against all kinds of activities about which the Bible does not speak. All in all, this approach to culture damns its followers to a continual state of guilt, confusion, and conceit. And it reeks of legalism.

A better approach to culture is based on serious theology. It recognizes that although the image of God in man has been defaced by the fall, it is not entirely erased. In addition, God has implanted a knowledge of Himself in every person that is clear and plain (Rom. 1:18-21). As a result, while the unbeliever seeks to suppress the truth of God, he can never fully do so. The truth of God leaks out, even when he is actively trying to quash it. When he lets up in his suppression of the truth, even for a moment, the truth of God bursts forth from the darkness of deceit and rebellion, like the sun after a violent thunderstorm. This is known as common grace—God’s restraint of sin in the unbeliever and bestowal of gifts for the common good.

In Part 3 we will explore the nature of common grace as an explanation for how unbelievers can produce works of culture that have value for a Christian. The notion of common grace provides a robust alternative to the weak and unsatisfying idea that Christians should only enjoy culture that is explicitly Christian.

Cultural Apologetics: Seeing the Truth of God in Cultural Expressions in the Wider World

Cultural apologetics is the practice of using truth that finds expression in culture, and directing a person’s attention to the fact that the truth only fits in a Christian worldview. That means that I can take truth wherever it is found and show someone who is familiar with that cultural expression that such an idea only finds its meaning in light of the Christian gospel.

For example, read this astounding quote from a commencement address given by novelist and essayist, David Foster Wallace, to Kenyon University in 2005:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.

Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Wallace committed suicide three years later, at the tragically young age of 46 (my age). As a Christian, I recognize there is much truth in this address. I can use this utterance by unbeliever because it is true, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was saying. I can show an unbeliever that what the Bible says about life apart from Christ has been proven true time and time again.

The power of cultural apologetics is that cultural expressions (movies, television, songs, novels, art, architecture, fashion, etc.) cannot stop proclaiming the truth because those who produce it are made in the image of God.

Part 2 of this essay picks up this idea and shows how human culture is inexorably revelatory of the truth of God

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