The following article was originally written as a term paper for a class at Davenant Hall. I have more thoughts on it, and I will likely expand and revise the content here. Thus, in many ways, this article is unfinished, but I thought it was useful enough to go ahead an publish. I certainly think the general contours of the article are good, but be aware that much of it is subject to revision.
Recently, evangelicals have seen a rise in something called "deconstruction." If you're anything like me, that word gives you postmodern chills, but proponents of Christian deconstruction will insist that their project has little to do with Jacques Derrida. Instead, they offer their own definitions:
[Deconstruction is] an academic term for the systematic pulling apart of the belief system you were raised in. 1Whether the concept has truly been "reconstructed" from Derrida is debatable, but even given that evangelical deconstructionism is a unique project, it involves a similar rejection of traditional authority. The evangelical project's focus is to untangle Christian faith from "the cultural conditioning of a broad social and religious movement in all its cultural, political, and ideological dimensions--and the way that movement is typically blind to its own cultural particularity, making universal claims about itself with damaging consequences." 2
But there's another parallel concern among evangelicals: contextualization. Tim Keller, arguably the loudest proponent of contextualization, defines it:
[Contextualization] means to resonate with yet defy the culture around you. It means to antagonize a society's idols while showing respect for its people and many of its hopes and aspirations. It means expressing the gospel in a way that is not only comprehensible but also convincing. 3In arguing for contextualization, Keller points back to early Christians, saying, "Yet, while they did not allow their agenda to be co-opted, they did not ignore or condemn the vocabulary and concepts of the culture." 4
In some ways, deconstruction and contextualization run against each other. Deconstruction's intent is to shed the cultural baggage of Christianity. It seeks to strip Christianity down to its core to reveal bare truths independent of the individual Christian's cultural conditioning (although the more progressive deconstructionists would probably reject a category like "bare truths"). In contrast, contextualization seeks to drive Christianity into cultural conditioning. Contextualization offers a "Yes, and..." to cultural norms and customs that do not run directly afoul of core Christian doctrine. If we wanted to mirror the language of deconstruction, we might call contextualization something like renovation.
But despite these projects moving in seemingly opposite directions, they both operate on the assumption that Christianity is culturally neutral. But this assumption does not hold up to scrutiny. Rather, upon examination of the Christian faith, we find that Christianity itself is a culture.
Lombo and Russo define culture in this way:
[The] concept of culture embraces the nature and exercise of man's spiritual faculties (that is, natural gifts and their transformation according to a model), the biological order and the free intervention of man that configures that order, and the transmission of knowledge and its interior assimilation. 5
So culture is (1) the exercise of man's faculties (2) in participating in and intensifying the order of the world and (3) the passing down and internalization of that order with relation to man's faculties. There are several notable elements in this definition.
First, culture is the thing that connects man's interior spiritual faculties with the world. It provides a pattern whereby he is able to understand and conquer the natural order. Man's rationality produces a large gap between the natural order and man's desired order; thus, there needs to be some bridge between his interiority and the external world. On the other hand, animals, having a much lower level of interiority, do not need an additional layer of reality in order to bridge the gap with the outside world. Man's ability to form abstractions means that he must have a grid for understanding those abstractions, something that the natural order does not immediately provide.
Second, cultures assimilate. 6 A culture does not exist independent of a cultured people. It requires a society which maintains it. Of course, the society can take many forms. We can speak of nearly any human institution as a society, whether it be the family, the state, or some religious institution.
Third, Lombo and Russo highlight the intentionality of culture. 7 Cultural assimilation involves pointing people toward some model, an ideal image. To put it more bluntly, cultural assimilation identifies the individual's purpose within the world. There is no room in culture for self-direction.
In Lombo and Russo's understanding, culture is made up of three elements: language, uses and customs, and values. Language constitutes the system of symbols that a group of people use to interpret the world. But this is deeper than one-to-one relationships between words. Lombo and Russo quote Wilhelm von Humboldt who speaks of language in terms of "worldview". 8 He speaks of language as a representation of "the spirit of a particular people." "Uses and customs" refers to the circumstances and forms that cultures use. This includes food, clothing, education, furnishings, religious ceremonies, and political systems. 9 Values are the things that cultures hold in the highest regard.10 In some sense, these values point to the ideal that a culture holds dear. To be conformed to the culture's model is to live out the values that produce the model.
At this point, it is worth addressing the issue of multiculturalism or cultural relativism. Given Lombo and Russo's definition of culture, it should be clear that from their perspective, cultural relativism is unachievable in any meaningful sense. This is because cultural relativism both is and is not a culture.
Cultural relativism is a culture in that it makes a variety of value claims. Cultural relativists hold up ideas like democracy, plurality, and secularity as cultural ideals. Furthermore, cultural relativists rely on the liberal order to defend and uphold these ideals. This also produces a symbolic language that assigns meaning to the world in a uniquely relativistic way. For example, the cultural relativist will have an extrememly negative reaction to Nazi imagery because it offends their relativistic sensitivities. The swastika has a meaning unique to multicultural societies.
For all of these reasons, cultural relativism would better be called "customary relativism." In truth, multiculturalism is not a call to a true plurality of cultures; rather, it is a call for a unified culture that does not necessarily tie itself to a unique set of customs, instead borrowing customs from a variety of other sources. Therefore, it would be appropriate to say that cultural relativism has all the ingredients of culture (if we include its hodge-podged customs).
But in another sense, cultural relativism is not identifiable as a culture. Certainly, we can point to the lack of intentional uses and customs in a multicultural society, but this is somewhat superficial. It is impossible for men to live together for any period of time without rapidly developing habits and customs with one another. And although they may have very different cultural backgrounds, the resulting almalgamation of customs forms a new unified set. The more pressing failure of multiculturalism is its lack of an ideal model.
Multicultural values do point toward a model, but the model is completely featureless. The goal is not to produce good men; rather, the goal is to produce equal men. Rather than concerning itself with some ideal end, cultural relativism works to provide every man with a carte blanche. The aim is that the individual would only suffer the imposition of others at the very edge of his self. Put another way, cultural relativism seeks to best apply the maxim, "Your rights end where my rights begin."
In many ways, Christian contextualization represents the best of this movement. It seeks to apply Christian values, aims, and language to a pre-existing culture. The problem is that contextualization necessarily commits us to the dead-end of multiculturalism. In order to even think of contextualization as a valid category of activity, we must shoulder additional values which have little to no basis in biblical Christianity (including contextualization itself).
At this point, we can begin to consider the ways in which Christianity is a culture. First, we will consider whether Christianity has the ingredients of culture, and second, we will examine whether those ingredients constitute a whole that comports with Lombo and Russo's original definition.
Remember that culture has three ingredients: language, uses and customs, and values. Christianity has all three of these in its great summaries of the Faith: the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. These summaries can represent more general categories that some have called "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." 11
The Truth refers to the doctrinal content of the Christian faith as expressed in the historic Creeds. Wilhelmsen says, "The term ‘truth' is used in relation to some standard understood by the intellect and applied by the intellect to reality." 12 The cultural value is immediately clear. Insofar as culture is the glue that unites intellect and reality, interiority and externality, the doctrinal content of the Christian faith provides a cultural standard for truth, and language serves as the human appropriation of that standard.
Here we find the concept of worldview helpful. One's worldview determines the set of presuppositions which inform our basic understanding of reality. 13 But where do those presuppositions come from? The simplest answer is culture, or more precisely, language. Language serves to delimit categories of thought in order that we are able to make sense of the data of reality, and the best language actually achieves that. Of course, some language is relative. For example, when I say "blue", I am actually referring to a broad range of colors with similar characteristics. Because colors exist on a gradient, different individuals and cultures may draw the boundaries in slightly different places. But the Truth requires binary language. Either something is or is not. This is the realm that Christian doctrine generally deals in. The historic Creeds draw sharp lines between what language is appropriate and what is not. They provide clear categories for understanding God, his people, and his world.
But beyond the formal boundaries of orthodoxy, Christianity offers a more holistic language to its people as well. James Jordan uses animals as an example:
For instance, when we come to the Bible with questions about animals, we think in terms of biology, the nature of genuses and species, and the like. The Bible, however, discusses animals in terms of "kinds," distinguishes between "clean and unclean" beasts, and tells us to observe the "ways" of animals as they live. The Biblical worldview of animals, while it does not necessarily contradict the findings of modern biology, is certainly different. 14It is clear that although these kinds of thought-forms are not strictly necessary for orthodoxy, Christians who are concerned with being biblically faithful will begin to think in biblical ways. This is not unlike the way a child learns language. We teach our children the formal rules of English grammar, and these are important. They provide a framework for understanding what English is and is not. But most langauge learning occurs through immersion. Our first languages are more caught than taught. In a similar way, the language of Christianity is formed in the heart and mind of a Christian as he participates in Christian culture.
The Life refers to Christian uses and customs. Primarily, we can consider liturgical forms like the Lord's Prayer. Liturgy serves to connect people to God, but it helps to solidify human relationships. As the people of God work together in worshipping God, they are bound together by their common mission and forms. These forms then extend into family and civic life, defining the habits of the household and the state. Biblically derived liturgical forms produce customs such as religious time-keeping through the Church calendar and mealtime prayer.
Take the Reformed tradition for example. The Reformed regulative principle of worship offers elements and forms of worship that are independent of particular circumstances. Some critics have claimed that the regulative principle is just as culturally conditioned as any other brand of worship, but Duncan demonstrates that Reformed worship is both biblical and transferrable. 15 In other words, the elements and forms of Reformed worship derive directly from the Bible and can be applied within a variety of difficult circumstances.
In fact, upon closer examination, we will find that the worship program outlined by Reformed theologians is strikingly similar to other historic liturgies despite superficial differences. This is because there is a common source of truth and language that unites all Christians, the Bible. Ironically, the mainstream Christian tradition most out of line with historic liturgical forms is broad evangelicalism. Even the supposedly radical Reformed view that the church sing psalms unaccompanied has always been the standard practice of the Eastern Church. Ultimately, because Christians operate from a common source of truth and language, common uses and customs will emerge organically within churches across the world.
The Way refers to the defining values of Christianity. These values are best expressed in the Decalogue. The Decalogue's moral code certainly defines some customs, but more importantly, it clarifies the ideal image. In the Judeo-Christian mind, the perfect man is one who not only hears the law, but does it. And biblically, adherence to the law is definitional of a righteous person. For example, Psalm 1 describes the blessed man who delight is in the law of the Lord as opposed to the wicked.
Finally, we turn to the intentionality of Christianity. Does the Christian faith assimilate believers toward an ideal image? Clearly, the answer is yes. Paul explains:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29 ESV)Christ himself is the ideal image, and Christians are called to be conformed to his model. We have already been using the phrase "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," but Jesus says that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Christ himself defines the language, customs, and values of his people.
This is the problem with contextualization. Contextualization seeks to let other cultures coexist with Christianity. But the Bible frequently calls the people of God to turn away from the ways of the goyim, the Gentiles.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart (Ephesians 4:17-18 ESV).This is an explicitly ethnic disctinction. Paul is drawing cultural boundaries, calling Christians to put aside the thought and life patterns of the Gentiles. The Gentiles are called to pick up a new language, new customs, and new values. Certainly, they may maintain some superficial cultural forms, but their culture has been forever changed. The contextualization movement conflates these superficial forms which sit on the very edge of culture with culture itself. But as we have already discussed, multiculturalism is not a real possibility. Although Christianity may adopt some of the forms of another culture, there is no sense in which the old culture can continue to exist independently. Christianity swallows it up. The ideal image of the old culture is obliterated and replaced by Christ.
The Church then is a new society of people who are seeking to be conformed to that ideal image. Believers are assimilated into and educated by a culture which is moving toward a common goal, conformity to Christ. The Church desires union with Christ so that she can see the world through his eyes. Christ himself reconnects man's spiritual faculties with external world. He invigorates the Church to pursue its calling in the cultural mandate and Great Commission. He provides a pattern for man to order the world. By definition, Christ himself is a culture that he calls his people into.
Clearly, by Lombo and Russo's definition, Christianity is a culture. But where does that put us in relation to deconstruction and contextualization? In short, an appropriate understanding of Christian culture offers us a fruitful alternative to both projects.
Deconstruction seeks to remove cultural baggage from Christianity, but it would be more helpful to see Christianity as overtaking other cultures. Where we find un-Christian cultural baggage in the church, we should first consider the ways in which the church has still held on to its Gentile values. We then approach those concerns from the standpoint of biblical authority, tearing down the idolatrous images of the old pagan culture. Deconstruction first sees Christianity tied up with pagan culture and rejects the whole thing as an outside observer, but the appropriate response is to stand within Christianity and reject only the illegitimate authority of Satan in the world, not the legitimate authority of Christ.
Contextualization, on the other hand, seeks to carry as much cultural baggage as possible in order to remove barriers to the gospel. This is a noble aim, but we have already considered its problems. Contextualization treats Christianity with cultural minimalism. Rather than considering the ways in which Christ's rule takes absolute authority over culture, it minimizes the effect to the lowest possible level for the sake of reaching the lost. Again, this is a noble aim, and it may be an effective initial strategy. But Christ will not settle for a halfway kingdom. He desires a people wholly devoted to himself and his way.
But when we recognize the cultural value of Christianity, we find a powerful and biblical way forward. Christians are a new nation:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)This nation is sent into the world to overthrow earthly powers. She is sent into the world as a unified people with a unified aim and a unified culture. And as individuals enter into submissions to the Lord of this nation, they throw off their old ways. Instead of pursuing the old ideals of their old nation, they seeks to be conformed to Christ, the Lord of a new, holy people who live in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
1. RELEVANT Staff, "Deconstruction Doesn't Mean You're Losing Your Faith," RELEVANT, December 1, 2021, 8:00 p.m. (Z), accessed March 16, 2022, https://relevantmagazine.com/faith/how-to-deconstruct-your-faith-without-losing-it/
2. Paul D. Miller, "The Role of Social Science in 'Deconstructing' White Evangelicalism," Mere Orthodoxy — Christianity, Politics, and Culture, December 7, 2021, 6:01 p.m. (Z), accessed March 16, 2022, https://mereorthodoxy.com/deconstructing-white-evangelicalism/
3. Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York, New York: Viking, 2015), 99.
4. Keller, 98.
5. Josť Angel Lombo and Francesco Russo, Philosophical Anthropology: An Introduction (Woodridge, Ill: Midwest Theological Forum, 2012), 200.
6. When I speak of assimilation, I am speaking of both the transmission of knowledge and interior assimilation described by Lombo and Russo.
7. Lombo and Russo, Philosophical Anthropology, 200.
8. Lombo and Russo, 203.
9. Lombo and Russo, 205.
10. Lombo and Russo, 205-206.
11. Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009), 118.
12. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Man's Knowledge of Reality: An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology. (S.l.: ANGELICO PRESS, 2021), 134.
13. James W. Sire, The Universe next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 17.
14. James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Wipf and Stock, July 1, 1999), 1.
15. J. Ligon Duncan, "Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship," in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship : Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan (2011), 69-70.