A missionary in Latin America told me not long ago about the problems he has with the local Christians. He is on the board of the local seminary, and when a meeting of the board is called for a specific time and day, all the other members of the board arrive an hour later after the specified time. After witnessing this lack of discipline concerning time, my friend confronted his colleagues about it. Their reply was that, as an American, he is trying to force on them a foreign culture – American culture – which valued time too much. In their own culture – Latin American culture – time is not of such high value, and therefore it was socially and culturally acceptable that people arrive an hour later for the meeting.
These local Christians have accepted a false ideology concerning culture, and concerning the relation of Christian faith to culture. First, they believe in the idea of the Enlightenment that every culture is ethically equal to every other culture, and therefore we should respect and value every culture, no matter what its teachings, practices, and results are. Second, they have accepted the lie that their faith and religion has nothing to do with culture; that somehow culture exists independently from the beliefs and ethical values of the people in that culture. And, third, they have reduced their Christian faith to utter irrelevance, to an impractical set of mental propositions that don’t affect their values, their actions, and their judgments.
If we did a test to see how much they abide by their own professed cultural “standards,” we might see a different picture, of course. If the employers of these same Christians whose culture doesn’t value time so much decided to delay their paychecks by several days, or if the banks where they deposited their money declared that no interest will be paid on CDs anymore, the reaction would certainly be negative. In any of these two cases no money will be lost or stolen, only time; and yet these same Christians would complain about the time lost and consider the actions of the employer and the bank equivalent to theft. Time would turn out to have value after all, when it was their time that was wasted. They will find out that valuing time is much more than an “American” cultural value, it is a Biblical cultural value:
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the LORD and it become sin in you (Deut. 24:14, 15).
What is “culture” anyway? And what is the relationship of our culture to our faith?
“Culture,” according to a dictionary definition, is “the totality of the social behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” All our individual actions, and all our collective actions as entities – families, churches, businesses, communities – together compose the culture. Culture is the way we treat each other in the society, and the way we do business with each other. Culture determines how we set up our families, and how we treat our spouses and children. The customs that regulate our communities and the laws our social and political life is structured by are part of our culture. Our literature and founding documents for our society and civilization – be it Augustine’s City of God, or the Magna Carta, or The Declaration of Independence – are also part of the culture. Arts and sciences, and in fact, the very motive and inspiration for the arts and sciences, are also part of our culture. Our cultural standards determine our value scale: what we value and how much we value it related to other things. Our interpretations of the past and our expectations of the future are elements of our culture, and are a product of it at the same time. Our view of nature and man, and our use of nature and man, are also determined by our culture. We buy and sell, work and rest, live and die as participants in a culture, or sometimes as rebels against the culture, but always as a cultural pursuit and undertaking, never outside the context of the culture.
But what’s in the foundation of a culture? All these value scales, ethical rules and social regulations, all the interpretations of past, present and future, all the judgments about aesthetics, entertainment, usefulness, honor, profit: where do they come from? Does a culture just arise out of nothing, as a blind product of material forces, peculiar to a specific group of people? Or is there a self-conscious human choice in building a culture, based on an ultimate view of reality?
There is. All the cultural factors and elements are not “developed” out of nothing, they all rest on a spiritual reality: on a belief in an ultimate transcendent value, high and above human experience and understanding, and yet applicable to human experience and understanding. If a man or a society believe that humans are no different than animals, then that man and that society will have an ethical and legal system based on that belief; in such society slavery, oppression, violence, crime will be the official norm, since these are found in the animal world. On the other hand, if a man or a society believes that God created man in His image, then there will be a different set of cultural values, practices, ethical rules, and legal regulations that will respect and protect man as made in God’s image. If a culture believes that time and human experience are not real but only an illusion, then that culture won’t value time as much as another culture that looks at time and human experience as a gift from God for man to utilize and fulfill his higher purpose as a creature; the two cultures will develop different sets of customs, habits, value scales and economic practices, as well as different sets of laws and social sanctions. If a society believes in the ultimate power of spirits to control nature against human endeavor, such a society will develop different social and economic mechanisms for survival and prosperity than a society that believes in one God Who has created the universe and has put man as his vicegerent over it. If a culture accepts sin as normative, then its paintings and books will glorify sin and mock righteousness; but a culture that exalts the Redemption of Jesus Christ will have different standards for its artists and writers.
At every step, men build culture according to their beliefs, because building a culture is only working out in practice what men have in their hearts. A man’s religion thus determines everything he does; it gives him the motivation to do what he does, it also informs him what is of value and what is not. A man and a culture inevitably consult their God or gods as to what economic enterprise is desirable and what is worthless, what is science and the object of science, which persons deserve to live and which deserve to die, what the future will be, and from there, what investments a man should make to meet the future, etc. Man’s motives, values, goals, never originate in man himself; they always stem from a higher reality which man accepts as ultimate and normative. (Even the Ayn Randian objectivist ethics of selfishness is based on the transcendent value of the human individual; objectivism, of course, never explains where that value came from and why we should accept it over against other values.) When men build a culture, they ask questions about the nature of reality, the nature of man, the issue of good and evil, the issue of values, and the future. The answers to these questions determine how they are going to build, and what they are going to build for a culture. Their every cultural action in every area of their individual and social life – family, education, science, politics, economy, even leisure and recreation – will be based on these answers.
And these answers have no empirical foundation. Men answer the basic questions of life according to the beliefs they have chosen; and they build their lives and their cultures accordingly. A true Christian will answer the questions based on the Bible as the revelation of God the Creator and His Son Jesus Christ; then he will organize his life and actions based on that revelation; eventually, the fruit of his life and actions will be the building of a Christian culture, based on the redemption of Jesus Christ in its every aspect, from the individual conduct to the principles of aesthetics, economics, public policies, and even international relations. Inevitably, a true Christian will build a Christian culture; if he is not building a Christian culture, then he is by default building an anti-Christian culture, one that opposes the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There is no neutrality.
An indeed, if the only alternative to the faith in Christ is unbelief and paganism, then the only alternative to a Christian culture is a pagan culture. Man will either worship the Creator, or the creation, in both his heart and his culture. Therefore a pagan – or, for that matter, a Christian who doesn’t consult his faith in every cultural matter – will build a pagan culture, one that values everything that is abomination to God, and establishes laws and practices contrary to the Law of God. Such culture will despise what is good and will exalt what is evil. And those Christians in it who refuse to challenge it, will be accomplices with the pagans in building a society contrary to the commandments of Christ.
Multiple books have pointed to that important fact of life: That our culture is simply an outward expression of our faith, and therefore we can not build culture different from our true faith. Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism demonstrates that the cultural origin of our modern capitalist economy is rooted in the Reformed faith; and that without the Reformed faith the basic components of the “spirit of capitalism” wouldn’t even be there to begin with. Harold Berman in Law and Revolution shows that the legal ideas prevailing in our modern societies come from the cultural victory of Christianity in Europe. Our legal codes today – as well as all the ideas taken for granted today like individual liberty, or habeas corpus, or the law of inheritance, and many more – wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Christianity which removed the old pagan and secular law and introduced laws based on the Bible. Stanley Jaki in his books demonstrates how modern science could only develop in a Christian world, and not in any other world. In How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization Vishal Mangalwadi demonstrates the same truth: The West as a culture was based on a system of beliefs, informed by the Bible. The list can be extended further.
The formational influence of religion to culture was an accepted truth among the Reformed Christians in the past. When in 1959 Henry Van Til wrote his book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, he wasn’t creating a new concept; he was only following his teachers in the Reformed faith. In it he wrote:
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, which is the content of religion. 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). This is the first principle of a biblically oriented psychology.
We see the application of this belief in the fact that throughout history the Reformed churches and communities never remained in their activity at the level of simply planting churches or converting believers or preaching “pure” theology. The Reformed historical ideal has always been a City on a Hill, a culture and a civilization that exhibits in its entirety the redemption of God to all nations. Faith must be expressed in works, and the works that followed from the faith of a true Christian was the complete transformation of culture according to the Word of God. Nothing less would suffice. Henry Van Til quotes John A. Hutchinson to that effect:
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.
Max Weber, in his book that has become a classic in the field of sociology, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, quotes much of Benjamin Franklin, showing how much of the early colonial culture in America was shaped by the Christian religion, and specifically by the Reformed theology. America was a Christian culture, from beginning to end; granted, not a perfect one, but one committed to go to the Bible every time there was a cultural issue that needed resolution. And in many sermons of the colonial era the focus of sermons was on obedience to God in everything the faithful did in the culture, and in the submission of the very society to God.
Unfortunately, even as Henry Van Til was writing in the late 1950s, the Reformed churches were already apathetic enough to not care and not even notice Van Til’s book. The comprehensive approach of the Reformed faith has been lost in the last two generations to the point where allegedly “Reformed” theologians today claim that Christians can’t and in fact, shouldn’t even try to build a Christian culture. In an interview with Peter Wehner, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary, specifically insist that we as Christians are not trying to create a Christian culture. Michael Horton of Westminster West Seminary, in an interview, declares that the Reformers never tried to transform the culture; in fact, he goes on to claim that “one of the major contributions” of the Reformers was that they “freed” culture from Christianity and acknowledged the legitimacy of secular culture! Reading Horton’s interview one is left with the impression that the Reformers’ aim was to free the culture as much as they could from any Christianity in it and establish a secular world in which religion was only a matter of the heart and of the church, and the rest of the world was morally and religiously neutral. Mohler and Horton in fact have adopted the same pagan view as the Latin American Christians above, that any culture is good, no matter what its teachings and practices are; worse, Mohler and Horton insist that we can not build a legitimate successful Christian alternative even to the most barbarous, repulsive, and pervert cultures of the pagans around us.
That Mohler, Horton, and others like them, pass for “Reformed” in our day only goes to demonstrate how far modern Reformed Christianity has deteriorated from its origins. The verdict is even stronger given the fact that we in America – more than anyone else in the world – are the heirs of the blessings of the Christian culture our forefathers have created. Neither the Puritans nor the Founding Fathers could conceive a world where politics, economics, education, or any other endeavor could be properly constituted without faith in Christ and without the revelation of God in the Bible. Our modern “Reformed” churches have settled for a “faith” that exists alone, and doesn’t apply itself in the real world and the real life of our culture. But a true Christian’s faith always works out in practice; and that work in practice inevitably expresses itself in the culture. A pagan builds a pagan culture, and a true Christian builds a Christian culture. But when a Christian refuses to build a Christian culture, he is by default building a pagan culture, and is destroying the legacy of the faithful in previous generations; and is leaving a world of paganism and despair for his children. It is time to reject the teachings of those who create a dualistic separation between faith and culture, and apply our faith to work. And not only that, but also teach the nations to transform their culture according to God’s standards revealed in the Bible.
 Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House,  1972), p. 37.