The Christian and Culture

In April of 1942, Westminster Theological Seminary hosted “The Christian World Order Conference,” just a few short months after the United States had officially entered World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty in the world. The goal of the conference was to contrast a biblical view of the world with fascism, communism, and nationalism, which had taken root in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It was a conference dedicated to applying the riches of the Reformed theological tradition to public societal issues.

The conference’s success was evidence of a need for wider distribution of this content. The Presbyterian Guardian, a newspaper founded by J. Gresham Machen, and loosely affiliated with Westminster and the OPC, published nine articles in a series under the heading “The Christian in the 20th Century World” with the same goal as the conference.

The content of these articles is striking and, in many ways, as relevant to the 21st Century world as it was for readers in the mid-20th century. Westminster Magazine will be republishing each article, in print and online.

This, the seventh of the articles, is Henry J. Van Andel’s “The Christian and Culture.” Born in the Netherlands in 1882, Henry J. Van Andel immigrated to the U.S. in 1909 and served as professor of Dutch language and literature. He also served as Associate Editor of the Christian journal Religion & Culture. In 1935 he also became Associate Editor of the Calvin Forum. He also translated from the French and Latin, John Calvin's Golden Book of the Christian Life and added a historical introduction to the publication.

In this article, Van Andel takes on the task of presenting John Calvin’s view of the place of culture in the Christian life. In doing so he posits that Calvin takes issue with three thinkers from Church history, if not by name. The first is Thomas Aquinas who, according to Van Andel and Calvin, dualistically splits the world into the realms of nature and grace where grace takes the priority. The second is William of Occam who takes the nature/grace dualist structure and divorces the two from each other entirely. Culture is to be dictated by politics while the church remains completely distinct and unrelated. Finally, the third is Tomas a Kempis who turned his back entirely on culture and advocated monastic hermitage.

Van Andel’s claim is that Calvin, on the other hand, rebuked all three positions in favor of a Christian liberty that was neither worldflight nor worldliness. For Calvin, life can be divided into no less than three spheres, the church, the state, and the adiaphora or “indifferent things” over which neither the church nor the state ought to dictate. All of these spheres are distinct but overlapping, ultimately under the overarching umbrella of the God’s kingdom in a fashion very similar to the previous article in this series by R.B. Kuiper. –B. McLean Smith, Archival Editor

There are six chapters in Calvin's Institutes which have been largely forgotten though they are of the greatest importance for the life of a Christian. They are the chapter on Christian Liberty (Book III, 19) and the five chapters on Christian Conduct (Book III, 6-10), once separately  printed, and often reprinted both in Latin and in Dutch. The last chapter of these five was once the last chapter of the Institutes, and ended with, the famous words, Coram Deo (in the Sight of God)—not Calvin's maxim, but Paul's own. This last chapter also contains a discussion of the so called common, or cultural, mandate, and the well-known idea that every calling is a divine calling. Moreover, it thoroughly reviews a Christian's attitude toward pleasure, sensuous and mental, and takes issue with Thomas a Kempis and the Anabaptists and others. There are no books in the world that treat the relation of Christianity and culture in such a clear, simple, and succinct way as Calvin's six chapters. It is my intention not to give a new approach to the  problem of religion and culture, but, simply to call back to the ideas of the great John Calvin, to arouse interest in what he wrote in the Institutes—not to mention other works—and to draw some conclusions for our own behavior in the troubled times in which we live. 

       In Calvin's age there were three theories of the relation of religion and culture which Calvin considered to be unbiblical. He does not mention these theories by name, nor even the advocates of these theories, but for anyone who knows a little about the history of thought, it is very plain that he contends against Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam, and Thomas a Kempis. 

       Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Catholic theologian and philosopher of all times, divides the world into two hemispheres, or levels: nature and grace. He identifies nature with culture, politics, philosophy, and so forth, and proclaims that this department of human knowledge and activity is the vestibule to the other, and that natural reason which believers and unbelievers have in common is the guide of natural life. The department of grace is identified with religion, with theology, and ethics, and with the church. The believer is on common ground with the unbeliever in the lower realm, but on the higher level he is different, because he has faith in Christ in  common only with the church. However, Thomas lops off a certain amount of natural life, for he makes faith a check on reason, and the church the controller of culture. All science and art had to serve the church. Philosophy and culture were the handmaidens of theology and the church. As a result, culture was not only declared to be inferior, but a certain amount was looked upon as unworthy of a Christian, because it could find no place in the church, unless it was said to represent symbolical values. For example, a love-song between the nightingale and the rose could only be tolerated if the bird pointed to Christ, and the flower to the bride of Christ. Thus the church became in reality a suppressor of education and art, and even of all progress in agriculture and trade. For Thomas Aquinas proclaimed the overlordship of the church in the realm of nature and culture. 

       Less than a century after Aquinas came another philosopher by the name of William of Occam who had the temerity to turn against this ingenious scheme of values. He proclaimed that the two realms of nature and grace, of state and church, of philosophy and theology, had nothing to do with each other, and that the church ought to leave the other half of life free. Occam, however, did not sufficiently distinguish between politics and culture, and so he did not really  release education and art, but actually put them under the tutelage of the state. Secular education, secular art, agriculture, cattle rearing, commerce and trade—they all should be freed from the  check and control of the Pope, but they should be put under the protection of counts, dukes, kings, and emperors. They would not be able to stand on their own feet because the world was the Devil's playground outside of the holy domain of the church. The strong arm of political rulers should guide them. Culture was only safe in the hands of dictators and tyrants. The church might pray for benevolent despots, but it ought to leave the schools, and the guilds, and the farmers alone. William of Occam is really the father of state culture, the first totalitarian philosopher. 

       About a hundred years after him came a lovely saint by the name of Thomas a Kempis, who turned his back upon all culture. His jewel of a book, The Imitation of Christ, was and is being read all over the world by God fearing people, and thus had and still has a tremendous influence. But saintly Thomas has some very morbid ideas about culture. He despises philosophy, learning, and art. He dares to identify nature and sin! He declares in no uncertain words that sensuous and mental pleasure is dangerous because it stands in the way of spiritual joy. And so he recommends to all Christians to leave education, art, and even conversation— especially with young people—alone. He advises to meditate and pray with a religious book in a lonely nook (cum libello in angello!) and to take only so much of the visible and audible world in as is absolutely necessary to prolong one's existence and health. In other words, Thomas a Kempis is the dangerous advocate of the heresy that sin is in matter, in nature, and in what man makes of nature, that is, culture. Every Christian should be a hermit. 

       It is Calvin who for the first time attacks the false theories that were in the air about the  year 1500. In his chapter on "Christian Liberty", he distinguishes three spheres of life which seem to be concentric. The inner sphere he calls the court (or world) of religion. The second, or outer sphere he calls the court of civic duties. The first one is the sphere of the church. The second, of the state. But of equal importance is Calvin's third sphere. He calls it an "external" court, or the court of conscience, and also the adiaphora, or "indifferent things." He does not mean by the adiaphora a few insignificant matters, for he mentions music, architecture, technical learning, festivities, everyday food and clothing. Calvin says explicitly that he does not adopt this term because he wants to imply that there are no God-given laws for this sphere of activity, nor that religion and morality have nothing to do with this sphere, but because he believes that this third sphere ought to be free from the control of the church and the state, and that the individual conscience of the believer ought to guide him in his conduct. In other words, Calvin takes a position squarely over against Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic Church, but also over against William of Occam, Machiavelli, and others who advocated despotism, and he loudly proclaims the liberty of culture. Indeed, Calvin made the principle of liberty one of the  foundations of life. Calvin believes very strongly in the antithesis of believers and unbelievers,  and in the antithesis of Christian learning and art and pagan learning and art. But in this chapter he is advocating that all learning and art, to be really genuine and noble, ought to be free from the control of state and church, and guided by the individual consciences of the believers. 

       It is true that Calvin was not consistent and that the schools of Geneva, the elementary as well as the higher, were under the supervision of both state and church. Calvin meant by cultural freedom only freedom in the natural realm; we would say, "technical freedom." But we modern Calvinists are certainly entitled to be consistent, to reap the fruit of Calvin’s principles, and to erect schools and universities that are free from the control of the state and of the church because  history has shown that this is the only way out. It is this principle that is back of our movement for free Christian schools in the Netherlands, in South Africa, and in America. It is this principle  which Dr. Abraham Kuyper had in mind when he opened the Free (Calvinistic) University of  Amsterdam in 1880—with only five professors, three in theology, one in the classics, and one in  law—a university which has become the backbone of our Calvinistic activities all over the globe. It is this principle of a free Christian culture which has brought about free Christian organizations of young men's and young women's societies, of laborers, employers, doctors, lawyers, scientists,  historical and literary scholars, artists, and, last but not least, an association for the study of Calvinistic philosophy. This principle of a culture free from the control of church and state was  first proclaimed by Calvin. The Italian Renaissance accepted the protectorate of despots. Calvin, for the first time proclaimed liberty of conscience for learning and art in a free and democratic republic guided by it democratic church. 

       It is pious-sounding talk to say that the kingdom of God is not an organization but an organism, and that it is not the task of God's people to organize in the fields of education, art, labor, and politics. When Protestant Christians were not organized in these fields, how did God's kingdom fare? Education fell into the hands of the Rationalists, and this led to the demoralization of church and society, and brought about the French Revolution. Art fell into the hands of sensualists. Literature became the handmaiden of indifference, despair, and crime. Labor was robbed of its wages by the laissez faire philosophy of the Mercantilists. Politics became corrupt, and played the government into the hands of a clique of rascals who exploited even the world's  colonies. And so the only solution of the world's problems is Christian schools, Christian artists’ and authors’ clubs and societies, Christian organizations of laborers and employers, of farmers, doctors, lawyers, teachers; Christian organizations of politicians and, still better, Christian  political parties (if feasible). There is nothing sinful in organization; on the other hand, in union  lies strength. God wants us not to sit back and let the world go to ruin. He wants us to be up and  doing; to do not the least, but our utmost; to work with all our heart, mind, and might. 

“Literature became the handmaiden of indifference, despair, and crime. Labor was  robbed of its wages by the laissez faire philosophy of the Mercantilists.”

But Calvin did more. In his last chapter of his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Walk  of Life he sets forth the Biblical principles that should guide us in The Right Use of the Present  Life. In this chapter he discusses duty and beauty, vocation and avocation, work and diversion— in other words, all that we mean when we speak of culture in the wider sense. In the narrower  sense, culture means the humanities, the natural sciences, and the arts, or rather the liberal arts  and the fine arts, also named “higher culture”. In the broader sense, culture comprises also  agriculture, cattle rearing, commerce and industry and trade. In this last chapter, Calvin lays  down three principles which no one has as yet seen fit to increase or to change. They are very  simple and straightforward. They are very sane and sound. Once and for all, he cuts the, Gordian knot that tied together Anabaptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, Calvinists and pious Catholics. He severs all relations with Thomas a Kempis, and calls his views of the visible world and of  sensuous and mental pleasure cruel or inhuman philosophy. He makes plain that sin is not in  matter, not in the world of color and sound, in food, drink, pleasure, daily work, conversation, and everything and anything that from the days of Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Plato, and  Aristotle has been called the cause of sin. Sin is in the human heart and mind. Sin is the transgression of God's laws and the abuse of God’s gifts. Holiness is not the avoidance of certain  physical functions or even mental disciplines in the realms of learning and art, but holiness is the  adherence to God's law. Nothing in creation and culture is itself sinful. “All is yours, but you are  Christ’s”. Every gift is a divine gift, and every calling is a divine calling. And, therefore, God demands of us not that we hate pleasure and work, not that we meditate as much as possible on  the future kingdom, to the neglect of our work, our health and our friends, but He demands of us  obedience to three simple principles in the realm of culture: (1) Moderation in the use of pleasure and diversion (which includes art); (2) Patience, if we cannot have these for some reason or other; and (3) Faithfulness in our daily work. 

       In regard to the first item, Calvin contrasts it with the principle of abstention. In Calvinistic circles there always have been two modes of life in regard to pleasure and art. There  was a Puritanic mode which believed in abstaining from any pleasure and art that was not religious in nature. In the old days these Puritans, or Precisians as they were called on the continent of Europe, did not only condemn the theater, card-playing, and dancing, but even roller and ice skating, pleasure driving even during the week, the use of vehicles on the Sabbath, courting on the Sabbath, picnicking, sports, and so forth. The Moderates believed that all things  that were good in themselves might be enjoyed in moderation, but free from sinful associations. The Precisians believed in imposing their rules of life upon others, and held that the local  consistories had the right to censure the transgressors. The Moderates believed in liberty of  conscience, and that the church should preach the principles laid down in the Scriptures and  make no specific rules, but urge young and old to lead a prayerful life and to avoid the semblance of evil. 

       It is certain from the Institutes that Calvin was not a Precisian but a Moderate, and that he considered any compulsion, whether political or ecclesiastical, in regard to culture, learning, art, and pleasure out of harmony with Scripture. Calvin did not believe that we should try to make our young people good by rules and regulations, but till Beza the old Catholic canon law was maintained, and so card-playing and dancing remained taboo because of their association with the  saloon. Not external separation, as Thomas a Kempis advocated, but holiness, obedience to  God's laws, separation from sin, was Calvin's watchword. He condemns strongly that the church  should make specific rules to guide our conduct. He even thinks that this is unscriptural. We must educate our young people to stand on their own feet, not only physically and mentally, but also morally and religiously. The Roman Catholic Church has been much in favor of cataloguing sins  and making rules for behavior. The Reformation brought freedom. And Calvin advocated this freedom more consistently than anyone else. The genius of Calvinism stands for Christian liberty. Christ has made us free. Let no state, or church, or society put a yoke on us. But let us stand in our freedom. 

       In regard to the second item—patience, if we cannot have pleasure, diversion, art, riches, companionship, culture—we can be brief. Calvin does not speak of sublimating our desires in the fashion of the modem psychologists, but he points out that there is a great reward for those who  suffer privation in a spirit of Christian meekness. Undoubtedly he means that the gift of faith in Christ is so great that it excels by far any other gift in the realm of higher or lower culture. For he points out in the preceding chapter that this life is only a prison, if we compare it with the life to come, and that the only value of this life lies in the fact that it is a preparation for the glory of the  heavenly kingdom. This has been the consolation of all God’s children through the centuries, that with body and soul they are the possession of Christ. And all the glory of the world's culture and  of nature’s beauties are nothing in comparison with the treasures that the Father has laid away for those who fear Him. 

“…the gift of faith in Christ is so great that it excels by far any other gift in the realm of higher or lower culture.”

       In the third place, however, we must not despise this life as if it had no value, and as if  work were a chore that we ought to try to escape as much as possible. On the contrary, Calvin says everyone must esteem his vocation because the Lord has appointed him to it. And his  vocation is part and parcel of the Lord's great plan that He has for mankind. “He has appointed to all their particular duties in different spheres of life… All in their respective spheres of life will bear and surmount the inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties which befall them when they shall be persuaded that every individual has his burden laid upon him by God. Hence  also will arise peculiar consolation, since there will be no employment so mean and sordid  (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly  important in the sight of God" (Institutes, III, 10). 

       This essay is too short to do justice to such a rich subject as the Christian’s task in regard  to lower and higher culture. We could only touch upon the high spots and remind the readers of the glorious Biblical principles that our great Reformer Calvin enunciated to be a guide to the  thousands of honest craftsmen, farmers, tradesmen, teachers, scholars and artists that were  waiting for his Institutes, that is, his instructions. After all, not what Calvin says but what Christ  and His apostles spoke and wrote is of importance. If we have succeeded in leading you back to Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Walk, and through this little pamphlet to the  Scriptural principles of freedom, we shall feel highly satisfied. No one warns more sincerely  against the two extremes of worldliness and worldflight than does Calvin. No one has written  more pointedly about the place of work and diversion, science and art, higher and lower culture  than Calvin. No one has so keenly shown that besides the law of the ten commandments there is, as it were, an eleventh commandment, the common or cultural mandate. Here are his own words at the beginning of the last section of the last chapter: "Lastly, it is to be remarked, that the Lord  commands every one of us, in all the actions of life, to regard his vocation". Dr. Kuyper spoke of "sphere sovereignty" at the opening of the Free University, meaning that every sphere of life has  its own laws and privileges and should be free from church and state, but Calvin already voiced  the same ideas in the words quoted above. It was Calvin, then, who not only gave us the first correct ideas of sin and grace when he spoke about total depravity of mind and heart, of the  necessity of the regeneration of the whole man in all categories of life, of the restraining grace of  God by which life on this planet remained possible and the church could acquire a foothold, but  it was Calvin also who spoke of the necessity and liberty of a Christian culture. 

       Calvin's ideas, of common grace and of the common mandate do not mean that a Christian should make the best of this world, and with the best of consciences either avoid the  most wicked part of culture, or enjoy the most acceptable part to his heart’s content. Calvin is well aware of the fact that the Devil is seeking whom he may devour and that the culture of this  world is and will be largely in the hands of unbelievers. He is conscious of the fact that the pagan  philosophers had “corrupt” and “confused”ideas about God and “only a few truths defiled with  numerous and monstrous falsehoods” in their ethics and in their theory of culture, but he realized  that in the technique of culture the unbelievers are “our assistants” and even our masters. Calvin is conscious of the fact that Roman Catholic culture was a mixture of truth and error. He is conscious of the fact that there were many libertines during the Renaissance and that they were  not all in Geneva. He is conscious of the fact that there is a great struggle also in the realm of culture between Christ and Satan, and that the antichrist will come and try to rob God of His glory. But he does not want Christians to take a back seat and let the world go to ruin. 

       Calvin wanted a Christian church, a Christian state, a Christian society, a Christian  culture. He himself founded an academy and a university in Geneva with freedom for the “arts”.  He himself let Bourgeois collect a Psalter with the most beautiful chorales we have known. Let  us follow his example and even go beyond that. Let us organize in every realm of activity, in some as Christians, in others more particularly as Calvinists. Let us be up and doing to establish  the banner of Christ in every sphere of culture. Let us have Christian learning and art. Let us have Christian organizations. Let us demand the world for Christ. For He is our King and Redeemer! For ever and ever!

(January 25th, 1944) 

Henry J. Van Andel was professor of Dutch History, Literature, and Art at Calvin College. He also served as Associate Editor of both the Christian Journal, Religion and Culture as well as the Calvin Forum.

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