THE CHURCH & CULTURE
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” Romans 12:2.
The preaching of the Gospel is transformative. Indeed the Apostle Paul when writing to the Romans says that “The gospel of Christ… is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” Romans 1:16b. Paul is speaking at the time when the Church was transitioning from being predominantly Jewish in nature to becoming all inclusive, which is to say that the national Church, (i.e., Old Testament Israel), was beginning to include other nations (such as the Greeks) to become the New Testament Church.
This, of course, is in the course of the ongoing fulfilment of the “Cultural Mandate” which was given by God to Adam (as Mankind’s representative) and Mankind as recorded in Genesis, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Genesis 1:27-28.
The Tower of Babel episode made sure that mankind would start spreading throughout the whole world. There the Triune God said, “‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.” Genesis 11:7-8.
The word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura meaning “growing, cultivation.” The verb “cultivate is taken from the Latin colere meaning “tend, cultivate.” It will be remembered that Adam was to “tend and keep” the Garden. As he cultivated the garden he was also cultivating his own mind horticulturally, botanically, zoologically etc.
We, of course, now live in a fallen world, a world in which sin, misery and death are ever present. However, it is into this world that God speaks His Word. He uses the “foolishness of the message preached” (i.e., the Gospel) to speak His Word (1 Corinthians 1:21).
In the 1980s Glasgow began to transform itself from being a smoky industrial city to being voted “the European Capital of Culture” for 1990. Glasgow’s motto is “Let Glasgow flourish” which in full is “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of Your Word, and the praising of Your name.” Of course as one would expect while living in a fallen world there are those who would not credit God and His Word for the cultivation of Glasgow. However, Glasgow has indeed flourished!
The Scottish bard wrote, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us!” We agree with Robert Burns: Seeing ourselves as others see us “wad frae mony a blunder free us.” But let us say that some Power gave us the gift to see a whole nation as others see it. Would that not be something? Well, when the Almighty opens someone’s eyes he or she is able to see the nation, even the whole world, as Christians see it.
Having been born of God’s Spirit how would a Christian view a nation? And can this view from many a blunder free it? Take any Western nation. Western cultures are Christianised cultures. Some more, some less – a lot less! To be Christianised does not mean that everyone in the nation is Christian. It simply means that they are under the influence of the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic (i.e., the Christian ethic). In other words, the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, i.e., the Bible, permeates that culture – to a greater or to a lesser extent.
Culture is religion externalised. Language, poetry, music, food, mode of dress, politics, architecture, art et al are expressions of culture, of a nation’s religion. Says Henry van Til,
Through sin man fell away from God and his religion became apostate, but through Christ man is restored to true religion. It is therefore more correct to ask what the role of culture is in religion that to put the question the other way around … Man, in the deepest reaches of his being, is religious; he is determined by his relationship to God ... Hutchison … says, “For religion is not one aspect or department of life besides the others, as modern secular thought likes to believe; it consists rather in the orientation of all human life to the absolute.” Tillich has captured the idea in a trenchant line, “Religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion.”
Christian religion in its Calvinist form is true religion. The teachings of Christianity influence culture for the better. Christianity does not destroy culture. Using the Bible as its blueprint, Christianity transforms culture, making it more wholesome in the realm of morals without being moralistic. In other words, Christianity helps cultures and whole nations think Christianly. Therefore, on account of its positive influence, Christianity frees nations from making too many blunders before God!
Culture & Language
Language plays a major role in the development of any culture. Indeed, any culture that loses its native language loses its identity! One only has to travel to Scotland or Ireland to find a people suffering from cultural amnesia! Many of the hills, glens, towns and villages have Gaelic names of which many of the natives, because they have lost their native tongue, are unable to relate to placenames. Thus, they are (like those living in Babel at the time when the great Tower was destroyed), linguistically confused and have become somewhat detached from their environment. With the social fabric and cultural cohesion thus weakened and in many ways the idea of “belonging to the land” destroyed makes it easier for the populace to migrate.
According to the Old Testament historian Alfred Edersheim, using the Biblical chronology, Bishop Ussher dates the year of creation (at least the creation of man) as 4004 BC. Therefore barely 6,000 years have passed since God formed man from the dust of the ground. Ushher’s chronology is the view held by Christian orthodoxy (to which I adhere). He dates the great Deluge, when God wiped out all of mankind (bar the eight on the
2348-9 BC. Ark
Getting to where I want to go, Ussher dates the confusion of Tongues at
as 2233 BC. Therefore barely 115 years had passed since the earth started to be
repopulated by (Noah's three sons) Shem, Ham, and Japheth (and their respective
wives!) Of course, treating this as factual history tends to cause derision in
those who operate under Evolutionary presuppositions! But, be that as it may,
we are here at the moment talking about the Christian view of history.
Therefore since we are dealing with a real historical event (as recorded in the
historically dependable and therefore accurate Bible – in Genesis 11 we can
presume that the population that gathered to build the Tower of Babel would not
have been that great of a multitude. Babel
At this time, according to the Bible, at the time of the building of the Tower, “the whole earth had one language and one speech.” Genesis 11:1. Literally the Hebrew has: “Now had the whole earth one language and words few.” (John Joseph Owens) The Hebrew word for "words" in this passage is of course “dabar-im” (the “im” ending in Hebrew being for the plural) Those at the Tower of Babel literally were men of few words!
Part of the Cultural Mandate given in Genesis 1:26-28 to mankind in Adam, and repeated when Noah et al exited the Ark (Genesis 9:1-7), is the cultivating of language, which necessarily includes the coining of new words. It should be remembered that God Himself in the very beginning, by merely speaking His Word, created things that are (e.g., space, time, and matter) from things that are not (Genesis 1; Hebrews 11:3). Thus, when God confused the languages at
in order to spread man over the face of the whole earth, He was ensuring that
man would cultivate the new language that each (family group?) had been given.
It is at this juncture that we are faced with a problem – if our thesis (that
Hebrew was the original or pre-Babel tongue) is to hold up. Babel
We believe that when Moses wrote the Pentateuch (i.e., the first five books of the Bible - Genesis to Deuteronomy) he made use of written records of genealogies and such like that Noah had preserved from the Flood. E.g., pre-Deluge Genesis 5:1 states, “This is the book of the genealogy of Adam.” If Moses was able to read and utilise this book and such like records, then he was familiar with the original language. Since Moses wrote in ancient Hebrew, we believe that the pre-Babel spoken and written-language was ancient Hebrew. Of course all this only accounts for one of Noah's three sons, i.e., the Hebrew-speaking Shem - from which we get the Semites. A descendant of Shem is of course Eber, from whose name we believe we get the title of the people referred to as the Hebrews (Genesis 10:21).
The three main clans then at the time when God confused the original language of the men of few words were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Here is what Alfred Edersheim has to say about this (apologies for its length!):
In accordance with the general plan on which Holy Scripture is written, we read after the prophecy of Noah, which fixed the future of his sons, no more of that patriarch than that he “lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years” and that he died at the age of nine hundred and fifty years.
Regarding the division of earth among his three sons, it may be said generally, that Asia was given to Shem, Africa to Ham, and Europe to Japheth. In the same general manner a modern scholar has traced all existing languages to three original sources, themselves, no doubt, derived from a primeval spring, which may have been lost in the “confusion of tongues,” though its existence is attested by constant and striking points of connection between the three great families of languages. The more we think of the allotment of Europe, Asia, and
the three sons of Noah, the more clearly do we see the fulfilment of prophecy
regarding them. As we run our eye down the catalogue of nations in Genesis 10,
we have little difficulty in recognising them; and beginning with the youngest,
Japheth, we find of those known to the general reader, the Cymry of Wales and
Brittany (Gomer), the Scythians (Magog), the Medes (Madai), the Greeks
(Ionians, Javan), and the Thracians (Tiras). Among their descendants, the
Germans, Celts, and Armenians have been traced to the three sons of Gomer. It
is not necessary to follow this table farther, though all will remember
Tarshish or Spain, and the Kittim, or “inhabitants of the isles.”
Passing next to Shem, we notice that he is called “the father of all the children of Eber,” because in Eber the main line is divided into that of Peleg, from whom the race of Abraham sprang, and the descendants of Joktan. The descendants of Shem are exclusively Asiatic nations, among who we only notice Asshur or Assyria, and Uz, as the land which gave birth to Job.
We have reserved Ham for the last place, because of the connection of his story with the dispersion of all nations. His sons were
Cush or Ethiopia,
Mizraim or Egypt, Phut or
Lybia, and Canaan, which, of course, we know.
It will be noticed, that the seats of all these nations were in Africa, except
that of Canaan, whose intrusion into the land
of Palestine was put an end to by . But yet
another of Ham's descendants had settled in Israel Asia.
Nimrod, the founder of the Babylonian empire.
The “Scythians,” (see e.g., Colossians 3:11. My old professor Francis Nigel Lee would hyphenate the word so that it read “Scyt-hians” or Scot-ians?) mentioned by Edersheim are also, I believe, mentioned as the forefathers of the Scots in the historical discourse in Scotland’s “Declaration of Arbroath.” Edersheim (above) mentions that “a modern scholar” (I do not know who) traces all existing languages to three original sources (Shem, Ham, and Japheth?), “no doubt, derived from a primeval spring.” Thus, according to Edersheim (and other reputable scholars) there is evidence of a linguistic “primeval spring.” I venture that this primeval spring (as I noted above) is ancient Hebrew. Thus, one would expect to find a residue of the ancient Hebrew spoken by those pre-Babel men of few words (dabar-im) even in contemporary languages.
Says Francis Nigel Lee,
From the Ancient-Irish Leabhar Gabhala (alias The Book of Invasions), we glean that at least some of the early inhabitants of Ireland had come from Iberia alias Spain. They called their new habitat ‘New Iberia’ alias ‘Hibernia’ – later abbreviated first to ‘Ierne’ or ‘Erne’ and then to ‘Eire’ and ‘Erin.’ The feasibility of the above claims can to some extent be seen in the ancient languages concerned. Quite apart from the Celtic source of many ‘Later-European’ words, one should also consider the grounds there may be for tracing many Hebrew words to an origin similar to the source also of Celtic. Both Proto-Celtic and Proto- Hebrew can to some extent be seen to derive from common roots – either Pre-Babelic or Early-Postbabelic. Thus Crawford’s Ereuna – subtitled: Investigation of theEtymons of Words and Names, Classical and Scriptural, Through the Medium of Celtic. Moreover, as Crawford further remarks,4 Japheth shall be found to dwell in the tents of Shem. Genesis 9:26f. In Herodotus, the oldest of historians, it is mentioned that the Celts were the most western people of Europe. They had, in fact, penetrated to the most remote recesses of the British Isles. Colonists from Phoenicia were the founders of States in Greece – and even as far as Britain. Doubtless they brought their customs and language with them. The early language of Phoenicia seems to have been understood by Abraham, who conversed with her inhabitants without an interpreter. Consider the identity or similarity of some of the commonest words in Hebrew (H), in Anglo-Saxon (A), in Irish (I), and in Welsh (W). There is: ab (HI), father; adon (HW), lord; and ain (HI), eye. Ish (H) is comparable to aesc (A) & eis (I), man. Asaf (H) and osap (I) both mean: gather. Arur (H) and airire (I) mean: curse. Ben (H) and bin (I) mean: son. Then there is berith (H) and breith (I), meaning: covenant. Dag (HI) means: fish. Dad (H) and did (I) mean: breast. Gever (H) and gwr (W) mean: strong man. Tan (HA) means: basket. Malal (H) and maelan (A) mean: speak. Phar (H) and fear (A) means: bull. rosh (H) and reswa (A) mean: chief. And ur (HI) means: fire.
At the heart of all languages one would also expect to find revelation of the Word (Hebrew Dabar) Himself, for it is He that gives all words (dabar-im) their true meaning (John 1:1; Col. 1:17). “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” John 1:14. The Spirit of Christ goes with us. Abraham Kuyper could, perhaps, be called a Theologian of Culture. He poetically writes,
The word is the material with which poetry is created, yet the word itself is not spiritual, but it is the material garment of the spiritual thought.”
Christianity influences nations primarily from the pulpit, i.e., from preaching. The Bible is expounded from cover to cover, which is to say that the Gospel is proclaimed while the Law is explained. The Gospel brings liberty and the Law, properly understood and properly applied, enables the Christianised nation to retain that liberty. Healthy pulpit: Healthy nation.
Where the Gospel is stifled God’s Law is flouted. By Gospel we mean the Good News that Jesus Christ died for sinners. By Law we mean the Ten Commandments that show that all of us are sinners, that we are in need of the Saviour of sinners, Jesus Christ. Not only does the preaching of God’s Law expose us as sinners in need of salvation in Christ, but, as well as showing Christians how to live their lives in demonstration of their gratitude to God for saving them, it also shows us how to restrain evil in our nation. Christianity helps us to see the nation as God sees it and helps to free that nation from many a blunder!
Many pulpits in the West preach another gospel, which is not the Gospel. They preach what is known as the Social Gospel. This message of the Social Gospel has more to do with Marxism than the salvation of the individual by grace through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Others preach a gospel that is devoid of God’s Law. Indeed they preach against the Law, as if the Ten Commandments were something evil, something to be rejected! Either way, the Gospel is robbed of its power. In this limp condition it cannot transform the individual and certainly not the nation!
Christians ought to pray that God will raise up gifted preachers; preachers able to proclaim and explain the Gospel with the Law, so that the lives of the hearers will be transformed by its power, so that they will transform the nations in which the live, so that their culture will be a Christian culture. Yes, God redeems individuals, but by an individual at a time, He eventually redeems whole nations! May your culture be Christian! Bottom line: Healthy pulpit: Healthy nation!
 Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, 1959 (Reprint 2001), p. 37.
 Abraham Kuyper, (Prime Minister of the Netherlands 1901-5), Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace In Science & Art, e-book.