In this section Aniol surveys Niebuhr’s Christ and culture paradigm, looks at the cultural views of key historical figures, and evaluates what he labels the separatist, two kingdoms, transformationalist, and missional approaches. It is at this point that I think the book could be sharpened.
Though Aniol doesn’t actually fully embrace the two-kingdoms view, proposing his own sanctificationist view, he does say, “Perhaps the two-kingdom approach is closest to the New Testament perspective, with its balance of both antithesis and commonality” (115). In his initial evaluation of the two-kingdoms view, the critique is muted by qualifications (“sometimes,” “impression,” “may be”): “the idea of natural law sometimes gives the impression of a neutral middle ground between believers and unbelievers . . . the antithesis may be blurred with the idea of natural law” (75). Later, however, he makes this more trenchant critique: “it fails to emphasize that a Christian’s involvement in the culture should manifest his Christian values” (115).
The attraction to the two-kingdoms view is understandable, especially for those who are concerned for the distinctiveness of the church’s mission and for culturally distinctive, sacred worship (including in the area of music). I find myself great agreement when reading two-kingdoms proponents about these matters. Nevertheless, the two-kingdoms view suffers from some fatal weaknesses.
First, it is an exegetically untenable position. David Van Drunen, the theologian who has done the most to make a historical and exegetical argument for the two-kingdoms view, proposes that the common kingdom and the redemptive kingdom are founded on the Noahic and the Abrahamic covenants, respectively. Neither of these covenants establish kingdoms, however (though the Abrahamic covenant does have promises related to future kings). The Davidic covenant, which is specifically about the kingdom, is neglected in Van Drunen’s treatments.
In addition, it is difficult to maintain that the Noahic covenant is a non-redemptive covenant or a purely natural law covenant. The redemptive aspects of this covenant are foreshadowed in Genesis 5:29. It is tied to a picture of redemption: the salvation of humans and animals through the Flood. The covenant is founded on a sacrifice, which symbolically shows the covenant’s foundation is Christ’s atoning work. Finally, the covenant includes special revelation about not eating blood, which shows the covenant is not solely a natural law covenant. To avoid these conclusions Van Drunen proposes that in 6:18 God makes a redemptive covenant with only Noah while in chapter 9 God makes a different common covenant with all creation. Van Drunen wishes to distance the covenant in chapter 9 from the sacrifice in chapter 8. These interpretations are strained, to say the least.
Second, Van Drunen errs in conceiving of the creation blessing as a command that formed part of Adam’s probation. It is better to see Genesis 1:28 as a blessing that came under covenant sanctions when man sinned. Rightly conceiving the creation blessing has significant consequences. The themes of blessing, land/kingdom, and seed are contained in the creation blessing. The curse in Genesis 3 is a reversal of the blessing in the areas of seed and land. It is no mistake that blessing, seed, and land are the major themes found in the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenants. Redemption is about reversing the curse in these areas. Since human sin led to the curse, addressing the problem of human sin is at the heart of redemption.
In addition, the creation blessing is the foundation for the kingdom theme in Scripture. Man was blessed with rule over the earth under God’s greater rule. When mankind rebelled against God, that rule was marred and distorted. The kingdom of God theme is about the restoration of human rule under God’s greater rule. The glory of God’s redemptive plan is that Jesus, the man who restores that rule, is both God and man. This understanding of the kingdom theme shows the difficulty of the two kingdoms approach. The kingdom that Christ announced cannot be relegated to the churchly sphere because its ultimate end will be the restoration of the original creation blessing.
Biblically it is clear that the Messianic kingdom extends to areas VanDrunen assigns to the common kingdom. Psalm 72 says the Messiah will “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the need, and crush the oppressor!” (Ps. 72:1). He will accept tribute from the other kings of the earth (Ps. 72:10). These are activities that VanDrunen would keep in the common kingdom. The entire idea of a redemptive kingdom separate from a common kingdom seems to be read into the biblical covenants rather than out of them.
A third weakness in VanDrunen’s work is the identification of all of culture with Babylon. VanDrunen bases this key part of his argument on a particular idealistic, amillennial interpretation of Revelation. He specifically constructs his eschatological statements so as to exclude both premillennialism and postmillennialism (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 63). This idealistic interpretation of Babylon in Revelation 18 is then conflated with Jeremiah 29:4-14 so that it refers to all of human culture, good and bad. However, Babylon of Revelation 18 seems rather to refer to worldly culture in opposition to God (and it does so as manifested in a particular place at the end of this age). In relation to this, the Babylonian exile does not seem to be the best model for Christian sojourning in the present evil age. From the exile from Eden and the exile of Cain through the Babylonian Captivity, exile from the land is punishment for sin. The sojourning theme, by contrast, is a positive theme. When the New Testament does explicitly draw on an Old Testament example of sojourning, it looks to Abraham.
Fourth, the thrust of VanDrunen’s presentation is to minimize the antithesis that exists between Christians and non-Christians in the cultural realm. He notes for example, that there is nothing really distinctively Christian about the vocations of carpenter, firefighter, plumber, or landscaper aside from the virtues of diligence, respect, and honesty that all people recognize as good. But what if VanDrunen shifted his examples to include research biologists, philosophers, historians, or bioethicists? The minimization of the antithesis by the two-kingdoms view seems to cut at the heart of Aniol’s project, which maintains that the church cannot be conformed to the culture because of the antithesis. Aniol notes this difficulty in passing, but I think it is such a threat to his (and my) view that it deserves a more sustained critique.
None of this is to say that Aniol holds to the views critiqued above. He does not go into this level of detail in his summary of the views. However, these aspects of the two-kingdoms approach make me wish that Aniol had been more critical of it.
Creation Regained: Response to Aniol’s Critique
Aniol does provide a sustained critique of a group he labels transformationalists, with Al Wolters as the chief representative. This labeling is problematic. The label transformationalist comes from Niebuhr’s typology, but Wolters’s position does not fall nicely into Niebuhr’s paradigm. Wolters describes his position as reformational, and he uses the word “transform” only four times in Creation Regained: once in quoting Romans 12:2, twice regarding the transformed way that early Christians viewed slavery, and once of the transformation of culture in the eschaton. Some reformational thinkers have objected to being labeled transformationalists by their critics. In fact, in contrast to transformationalism, Wolters and Goheen note, “The history of this ‘time between the times,’ then, will not be one of smooth progress or an incremental linear development of the kingdom toward its consummation. Neither will our mission be one that resembles a steady victorious march toward the end” (133). Rather, “We announce and embody a victory that remains hidden until the final day. And so the embodiment of that victory often appears in what appears to the world as weakness, even foolishness” (134-35). What does it look like to live out this vision in the present world: “If we as the church want to be faithful to the equally comprehensive biblical story we will find ourselves faced with a choice: either accommodate the Bible’s story to that of our culture and live as a tolerated minority community, or remain faithful and experience some degree of conflict and suffering” (134). This is neither triumphalism nor a minimization of the antithesis.
Critique 1: Conflation of Divine and Human Creation
The specific critiques launched against Wolters seem to arise from misunderstanding. For instance, Aniol writes, “Wolters fails to distinguish between God’s creation and man’s creation. He often conflates the two categories, equating the intrinsic goodness of God’s handiwork with what mankind produces” (79). He raises the stakes by saying that this is “to slide dangerously close to Pelagianism” (79). Wolters’s view does expand the conception of creation beyond material things in two ways, but this expansion does not involve a confusion of God’s creation and human creation.
First, Wolters holds that law is built into creation. Creation is not only material things; creation includes non-physical laws like gravity and norms for marriage. Drawing on the wisdom literature Wolters observes that God designed his world to work in particular ways. Wisdom is to observe God’s world to through the lens of God’s Word to discern how best to live in the world God made. Wolters’s point here actually strengthens Aniol’s project: “Much of modern art, with its refusal to recognize any aesthetic norms, edges toward nihilism: it manifests a glorification of autonomous human creativity, and in doing so denies God’s creativity in the aesthetic realm. Not all art is good art. Both artists and aestheticians are called, each in their own ways, to discern the criteria that define good art—criteria that are not arbitrary but rooted in a given order of things that must be honored” (26). Here Wolters’s is challenging the same cultural relativity that Aniol is challenging.
It is probably Wolters’s second expansion of the concept of creation that concerns Aniol. Wolters points out that God “put an image of himself on the earth with a mandate to continue” the work of creation. In making this point, however, Wolters is not conflating what God has made and what humans make and calling both creation. He is simply making the point that the “unfolding of culture and society are integral to creation . . . , that they are not outside God’s plan for the cosmos, despite sinful aberrations, but were built in from the beginning, were part of the blueprint” (44-45). In other words, Christians should not oppose cities per se and prefer an agrarian lifestyle on the grounds that Adam lived in a garden but Cain built a city. We should not avoid all music because Jubal devised the first musical instruments. Rather, we recognize that at the center of the new creation is a city, the new Jerusalem, and that right worship of God can make use of musical instruments. Why? Because God designed his creation so that it could develop in such ways. Wolters is not saying the human development itself is God’s creation. Rather, the norms that God built into the world make such development possible and necessary.
In addition, Wolters specifically guards against Aniol’s concerns by a detailed discussion of worldliness (something absent in Van Drunen’s writings). He argues that “world describes the totality of sin-infected creation” (64). He argues that “nothing is ‘neutral’ in the sense that sin fails to affect it” (82). Goheen, who coauthored the postscript to the second edition of Creation Regained writes in another book, “After being rescued [Christians] are not to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15), nor are they to conform to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2). When Paul exhorts the church not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, he is referring to culture” (A Light to the Nations, 182). There is no cultural neutrality here, nor is there an ascription of the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation to the works of man’s hands.
Critique 2: Confusion of Elements and Forms
Aniol’s second critique of Wolters is that his structure/direction distinction “fails to distinguish between what might be called elements and their forms” (79). This critique does not reject the structure/direction distinction, for Aniol notes, “Wolters’s structure/direction categories are a good starting point, but the situation is often more complex” (79). Wolters would not disagree with this last statement, for he has himself noted that structure and direction don’t really settle issues; they provide the framework within which the discussion takes place (cf. Creation Regained, 110).
The value of this framework should not be discounted, however. By affirming the goodness of creational structure, Wolters defends what the church has defended since the rise of the gnostic heresies, namely, the essential goodness of creation. By affirming the reality of direction no one is not able to do what Aniol fears—simply affirm that cultural practices are creationally good. One is forced to argue that such practices are not twisted in sinful directions. Structure and direction may simply be a starting point, but it is a good starting point.
Aniol disputes some of what Wolters labels as structure: “he lists technology as a structure, but technology is already a direction itself; it is a form of the more basic element of communication. The same is true for dance and music.” This kind of dispute, however, is not a critique of the framework that Wolters is laying out; it is the kind of discussion that is necessary within the framework. Having seen Wolters’s responses to questions of this sort, I think he would welcome challenges to his categorization on certain points. (However, I would personally disagree with making technology a direction of communication; I would see technology as the basic structure of tool using with the different actual technologies developed embodying various directions.)
Critique 3: Cultural is Neutral
Aniol states, “the transformationalist position eventually understands culture in general to be neutral. Any ‘sinful direction’ it recognizes is typically limited to the content of a given cultural form but not the form itself. Rather, since forms are characterized as elements (or directions as structures), very few if any cultural forms are judged to be against God’s law. The danger of this view is that anything in culture is fair game for the Christian for the Christian, and ‘cultural redemption’ means little more than adoption” (79).
Aniol is not tilting against windmills here. This does describe real people and movements. But it is doubtful that it accurately represents Wolters and Goheen. As already noted Wolters and Goheen have a robust understanding of worldliness which guards against mere cultural adoption. For instance, Goheen describes his family’s approach to the use of technology: “Ignoring this potent force in our homes is nothing short of foolish. We read Neal Postman’s Technopoly, and when new technologies were introduced into our home, we discussed them together: What will this give and what will this take away? What are its benefits and its dangers? We can record some successes and, sadly, some failures. Nevertheless, there must be an intentional plan to discuss these issues to help our children learn to use technology wisely” (A Light to the Nations, 222-23). He also describes their approach to television: “When we had television in our home in the early years, we allowed our kids to watch some children’s programing as long as they observed a simple rule after each commercial. They had to ask (out loud so we could hear): ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’” (A Light to the Nations, 223). Notice that the television, which dominates so many American lives, evidently went by the wayside. And notice what Goheen says really filled their time: “None of our children can remember a time when we didn’t have family worship as central to our evenings. We set aside an hour to an hour and a half for family worship five nights a week (Monday through Thursday and Saturday). It was important to set a time and remain unswerving in a commitment to guard it at all costs against other intrusions. It meant starting other meetings later and not planning other evening events. During this time we taught our children the true story of the world in Scripture, using books and methods appropriate to their ages. We spent significant time singing and praying together” (A Light to the Nations, 222).
This doesn’t sound like “little more than adoption” of the culture. Nor does Goheen’s comments about technology comport with the idea that direction only has to do with content and that forms are always structural.
Concluding Thoughts Regarding Wolters and Goheen
This response to Aniol’s critiques of Wolters and Gohneen does not mean that his critiques of cultural conformity in the name of cultural redemption have no legitimate target. They do. Nor does this mean that everyone writing from Kuyperian background is equally helpful. Wolters is far better than Cornelius Plantinga, in my estimation (and on the two-kingdom side, David Van Drunen is far better than D. G. Hart on the issue of Christians and the common kingdom). My point is simply that Creation Regained actually gives Aniol a better platform from which to make those critiques than the two-kingdom viewpoint. I think that Aniol could strengthen his position by seeing Wolters as an ally rather than as a foe.
Nor does this response mean that Wolters and Goheen are above critique. For instance, Wolters’s claim that the “products of human culture” will be purified and brought into the new creation goes beyond the biblical evidence and seems unnecessary even in a redemption-as-restoration paradigm. I also question Wolters’s willingness to speak of Christians advancing the kingdom in such areas as “advertising, labor-management relations, education, and international affairs” (76). This language seems too expansive. Regarding Goheen’s A Light to the Nations, I’ve in the past called it “the most disappointing and most profitable book that I’ve read recently. Disappointing because I came to the book with high hopes and found that I disagreed with his basic thesis. Profitable because it is . . . full of wis[dom].” Nonetheless, I find their overall paradigm more biblically grounded and more practically useful than the two-kingdoms paradigm.
What is Culture? Aniol’s Proposal
Aniol concludes his section on culture by arguing that culture should be disconnected from the concept of race and connected to the New Testament category of behavior. If this is not done, then any cultural critique will be labeled racist. If that happens, then the Christian is not able to critique any culture.
Since race is a social construct, and since, given the way the construct has been developed, races exist across multiple cultures, I find the first part of the argument compelling. I also agree that when relating the New Testament to the idea of culture, the idea of behavior is a major connecting point. However, culture is more than behavior. It involves ways of thinking, and it involves artifacts. I think Aniol’s discussion of culture, while good and helpful, could be strengthened by including a discussion of the Bible’s teaching about thinking. In addition, I think expansion on the concepts of elements and forms, which he discusses at various points in the book, might help him further address the artefactual aspects of culture.