[K:NWTS 11/1 (May 1996) 27-36]

Biblical Theology and the Culture War

David Van Drunen

Kerux V11N1A4

One cannot read far into most evangelical or politically conservative publications before coming upon a discussion of the "culture war." The perceived existence of this culture war sends distress signals among not only the religiously conservative, but even among many who are little interested in religion. Though there be some who point to the Republican takeover of Congress or polls which show that more than 90 percent of Americans still believe in God as proof that America is essentially healthy, many more see the stubbornly high rate of drug use, the onset of political correctness, the rise of illegitimacy, and the corresponding breakdown of the family as much clearer signs that our culture is in serious decline and that, apart from a turn from the current direction, our nation may not long continue to enjoy the great measure of prosperity and freedom that it has enjoyed since its inception. 

How are we as Christians to respond to the often quite frightening reports we read? What is a proper response to the very real problems which threaten to change our lives and those of our children? Increasingly the response is political: organize ourselves into political groups; get out the vote; elect a party into power which will crack down on criminals; prohibit abortion-on-demand; eliminate welfare abuses; re-legalize prayer in public schools; and support a host of other initiatives which fall under the rubric of "family-values." The appearance of groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in the past two decades evidence the seriousness of those adhering to a political approach, and the elections of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and of a Republican-controlled Congress in 1994 show both the potential and actual power of such organizations. Many Christians and non-Christians alike have beaten a path to political conservatism. They have realized that though there has been so much "progress" and "advancement" in the past decades, those who lived fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred years ago were in many ways much better off than we are today. At least then there was a higher degree of public virtue, a better educated youth, a lower rate of crime. To preserve our culture, they believe, we must turn back the clock, or at least recognize anew the value of families, churches, and traditional models of education, things which made our culture strong originally. Many have recognized that such things are inherently apolitical and have correspondingly supported a reduction in the size of government, thus creating the interesting phenomenon of a movement which seeks political authority, so that under its watch the extent of political authority can be decreased.

Yet, for all the prospects such a movement may seem to hold, there are more than a few potential problems. A study of history reveals few cases in which those in authority actively sought to decrease the extent of their power. Human nature being what it is, it seems much more likely that those in power will seek not only to keep their office, but also to increase its sphere of authority. We need only to observe the sudden hesitancy of new congressmen who, before the last election, were so opposed to pork-barrel politics and so enthusiastic about term-limits. Opposing the former and supporting the latter might mean a short stay in Congress, and sinful men tend to give up the power which they possess only with a struggle. On a less theoretical and more practical level, we might justly ask what social problem was really solved by uniting forces to elect the correct presidential candidate for three straight elections? Despite billions of federal and state dollars spent, the drug problem remains as intractable as ever. The decision of Roe vs. Wade still stands as the law of the land. Welfare recipients and their social workers do not let go of government money easily. Schools seem to have further degenerated. Will the next round of conservative government be much more effective in implementing what it has proposed to do? Will the fickle electorate even let it survive more than two years? Perhaps the stark realities of the political world should cause us to reevaluate our attitude toward the culture war. Perhaps a Reformed biblical theology should too.

It may seem at first glance that looking at Scripture redemptive-historically actually rules out much hope of gaining biblical guidance in waging a culture war. Any moralistic approach would appear more potentially fruitful. After all, fighting a culture war is about action. Interpreting Scripture as if it centers around the redemptive work of God through Christ, as useful as it might be for understanding the Gospel message, does not immediately strike us as providing fertile ground for a development of social ethics. Perhaps this is why an evangelical Christianity so desperately seeking to be relevant finds a biblical-theological approach at best somewhat interesting theoretically, but quite unusable when it comes to setting forth the bottom-line. And how to live life here in the world, a topic under which social ethics falls, really is the bottom-line. Or so thinking tends to go.

The critic of biblical-theology is correct to a point. A redemptive-historical approach does not offer an immediate or easy answer to problems of social ethics, and if living life in this world is the bottom-line, then biblical-theology is somewhat irrelevant. Yet, biblical-theology would argue that living life in this world is not at all the bottom-line. And it would also argue that though it offers no easy and immediate answers to problems of social ethics, it provides the only firm foundation for discussing such issues, without which the Christian ethicist will sooner or later go wrong. Perhaps at times biblical-theology is short on specifics, but it is only by recognizing the big picture which biblical-theology provides that one has a solid basis on which to discuss specifics.

How is the Christian to view culture? This is a perennial question, of course, that has received a multitude of answers. A Reformed biblical theology answers that question, and it answers by giving us the big picture and an overarching worldview. Without it we will never find the correct specifics. With it the culture war becomes much more explicable.

Perhaps there is no better place to learn the biblical view of our culture than Jeremiah 29. This chapter consists of a letter which Jeremiah wrote to a group of people that was asking many of the same questions we are asking today. For nearly a millennium the Israelites had lived in the Promised Land of Canaan under the Mosaic Law and a Davidic king. They were God's chosen covenant people. To them all of life was holy. God's revealed law was to regulate every part of life, and no one transgressing this law, no covenant breaker, was allowed to live. The question of culture was easy for the Israelites in the Promised Land: all of societal life must conform to the Mosaic Law, and anyone breaking this Law should be put to death. It was really quite simple.

The question of culture did not arise until they were deported to Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. Suddenly all the things that had been taken for granted were thrown into confusion. They were no longer living in the land promised to their race by God. The Mosaic Law was no longer the constitution of their country of residence. Their head of state was no longer a Davidic king, but a pagan Gentile. What were they to do? They had seldom been faithful as a society while they lived in their own land, but at least the answer to that problem was always readily available: reform according to the Mosaic Law. Were they now to seek to reform Babylon according to the Mosaic Law and turn it into a new Promised Land? Were they to resist the Babylonians and attempt forcefully to return to Canaan? Were they to meekly give up their consciousness as God's chosen people and become Babylonians? The answer was not clear. Undoubtedly some were promoting each of these views.

A Reformed biblical-theology demonstrates how their situation is so closely aligned with ours. Their situation was, in fact, typological of ours. We understand that the Promised Land of Israel was a new Garden of Eden, a holy theocratic land whose very ground was sacred. Only those in good covenant standing with God were allowed to remain there. Both these in turn were the protological types of the eschatological, eternal heavenly kingdom of God. We understand as well that the exile to Babylon was a new expulsion from the Garden of Eden. As Adam was convicted of being a covenant breaker, and no longer fit to live in the holy land, so the people of Israel, convicted of transgressing the covenant God made with them through Moses, were no longer fit to live in their holy land. Both these in turn were types of our situation today. There is no geopolitical nation today which can be called God's special holy land. We are a people in exile. We are a people who live with Adam east of Eden. We do not live under a Davidic king. The Mosaic Law is not our constitution. We, like the Israelites, live in Babylon. Little wonder is it, then, that New Testament writers used the term "Babylon" to represent the alien city in which God's church dwells (e.g. 1 Pet. 5:13, Rev. 18). We do well, then, to listen to Jeremiah's instructions to his people in exile.

In verses 5 through 7 of Jeremiah 29, the prophet lists a number of things which the people were to do in regard to Babylon and the culture which surrounded them. He tells them to build houses and settle down, to marry and have children, and to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city where they lived. What strikes us about these instructions is their seemingly high regard for life in Babylon. The people were not to reject relations with the Babylonians and seek a violent return to their land. Rather, they were to get involved with the commerce of Babylon, increase its population, and actually pray for its well-being (though it was the city which ruthlessly destroyed the Lord's temple and dragged them into exile). In verses 8 and 9 Jeremiah instructs them to ignore the prophets who were speaking lies to them in God's name. Undoubtedly he had in mind here men such as Hananiah, whose story we read in the preceding chapter. He had prophesied that within two years the yoke of the Babylonians would be taken off the Israelites. He was a false prophet, however, and God condemned him to death two months later through Jeremiah. Israel was not to expect just a short stay in Babylon. They were to settle down and were responsible for establishing "normal" lives for themselves and their families.

Not only were the Israelite exiles not to shun interaction with the Babylonians, but they were also not to seek to reform it according to the Mosaic Law. Time and time again while the people were in Palestine God commanded them to return to the law. Here no mention of it is made. They were to seek the peace and prosperity not of their holy, theocratic nation, but of Babylon, the pagan nation. They were even to pray for it, because upon its prosperity their prosperity depended. Clearly times had changed for Israel. One can hardly conceive of God commanding the people to pray for the peace and prosperity of their own nation when it rebelled against the Mosaic Law. Such a situation would have called not for prayers of prosperity and peace, but of prophetic calls for judgment and repentance. Here in exile, however, they were to pray for Babylon as it was and recognize that it could never be a new Promised Land.

But Jeremiah's words do not end here. In verses 10 through 14 he goes on to tell the people about Babylon's future. "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place." Babylon had only a certain amount of time allotted to it, and no more. After seventy years of exile God would come and bring the Israelites back to their Promised Land of Israel and bring judgment against Babylon. What an important message to append to the instructions of verses 5 through 9! Jeremiah instructs the people to involve themselves with Babylon's culture only with certain other things in mind. They were not to simply blend in as they mixed with the Babylonians. They were certainly not to lose their identity as Israelites. Though they were to be involved with their culture, their culture was not the end of their existence. In seventy years this culture in which they were established was going to be destroyed. In seventy years they were going to return to the Promised Land with hope of again living under the Mosaic Law and a Davidic king. In the oft misapplied eleventh verse God through Jeremiah promises the people that he has plans to prosper them, to give them a hope and a future. But this hope was not to be realized in their life in Babylon. Rather, their true hope, future, and prosperity were tied to leaving Babylon and taking up residence anew in the Promised Land. Exilic life in Babylon was only temporary.

Two extremes they were to avoid. First, they were not to shun involvement in pagan Babylonian culture. Second, they were not to become so involved that they lost sight of their true destiny or the true destiny of Babylon. Instead, they were to do their various cultural tasks, building homes, planting farms, raising families, while all along recognizing the temporary and limited nature of the work they did.

What a timely message for the church today as it lives in Babylon. The two extremes mentioned above have been with the church throughout the Christian era. There have been many who have rejected the validity of the existence of a secular and alien culture. They have chosen many different responses, whether shunning the world through residence in monasteries or seeking to radically transform the world along the lines of the Mosaic Law or some other distinctly Christian agenda. But ultimately the viewpoint is the same: Babylon has no right to exist. There have been many others who have adopted exactly the opposite approach, not only accepting the existence of Babylon, but so wholeheartedly adopting its ways and involving itself in its life that they seldom give a thought to any possible life beyond. They too have chosen different agendas and attached themselves to various causes, but ultimately here too their views coalesce: Babylon is all there is. Anyone with an eye for the various positions of those who call themselves Christians today will recognize that these two dangers with their temptations lurk very near us still.

We must take care to heed the instructions of Jeremiah yet today. That these really are still applicable to the New Testament church is confirmed in passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 : "What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away." Paul here makes a number of assumptions. He assumes that the people to whom he is writing will be getting married. He assumes that they will be saddened and gladdened by the things of the world. He assumes that they will be buying and using things of the world. In short, he assumes that Christians will be involved with the day-to-day life of the culture around them, and he nowhere hints a condemnation of this. What he does condemn, however, is doing all these things as if they were the most important things, as if they were ends in themselves. Our belongings are not to engross us and are not things that we are able to keep. What is the motive for such an attitude? Simply this: the world in its present form is passing away. How similar this is to Jeremiah. Marry? Yes. Buy? Yes. Use? Yes. But let these things engross us or forget that we cannot keep them forever? Never. For just as the Babylon of Jeremiah's day was legitimate, so is the Babylon of ours. And just as the Babylon of Jeremiah's day was soon to be destroyed, so the Babylon of ours is passing away. As the hope of the Israelites in exile was a return to the typological Promised Land of Canaan, so our hope today is arriving at last at the antitypological Promised Land of heaven when our Lord Jesus Christ comes a second time.

Which brings us back at last to the culture war. This brief look at biblical theology should teach us a number of things about this battle. Most important of all, it teaches us that the culture war rages in Babylon, not in the Promised Land. A number of other important considerations arise from this. For one thing, it reminds us that in any of our cultural struggles we are not to set as a goal the annihilation or even the radical transformation of society. The existence of Babylon is completely legitimate. This is a particularly relevant message for Americans especially to heed. America is portrayed as the Promised Land so often—it is the hope of the world, the shining city on the hill, with liberty and justice for all. It is the refuge for the teeming masses of distant shores yearning to be free. It is a land of never before attained prosperity and military strength. America certainly is a great land, and patriotic affections are good and healthy. But it is not paradise, and never was. And neither is any other place on earth. To view any earthly land as the Promised Land is to set our sights both too high and too low at the same time: too high for our nation's prospects and too low for what the Promised Land really is. People wage culture wars in Babylon, and to whatever extent they win or lose, Babylon continues to be just that—Babylon! It will not be annihilated, and it will not be transformed into something else.

To understand this is to put things into perspective. If the America of 50 or 100 or 200 years ago was Babylon, and if the America of the next generation, apart from the outcome of this culture war, will still be Babylon, should we not conclude that culture wars really are not won or lost, at least not absolutely? Living in Babylon by definition implies living outside of Paradise in a land which does not in any special way belong to the church, and as such is more or less filled with injustice, immorality, and any number of other depravities which motivate the culture warriors. As long as the church has lived in Babylon, it has been involved in cultures with marks of degeneracy. And as long as it continues to live here, it will face the same thing. It is only at Christ's return that wicked culture and its supporters will be abolished completely: "God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (2 Thess. 1:6-7). The culture war has been raging for ages and it will not end until Christ returns. Why do we so often act as if the 1960's, with the corresponding rise of the drug culture and sexual promiscuity, marked the beginning of this war? Perhaps the battle rages more fiercely and more visibly now, but even Christians living in Norman Rockwell America should have realized the existence of the culture war—the same culture war which rages around us now. As a wise man long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun.

This being true, the attitude with which the culture war is currently being waged certainly deserves some critical scrutiny. So many who are on the front lines speak as if America once was in some manner the Promised Land and that the culture war has been engaged recently to restore America to that position it once held. Such talk is not only remarkably short-sighted but also theologically untenable. America never was paradise, never will be paradise, and the culture war is not some recently begun phenomenon which will terminate anywhere short of the supernatural intervention of Christ's coming. If we choose political tactics in fighting the culture war, then we should be prepared to keep using them indefinitely, because the political challenges to our cultural dreams will never die.

However, this is not to say that we as Christians should not participate in the culture war, and it does not mean that all the methods or goals of those on the frontlines of the culture war are wrong. Not at all. God commanded the people in Jeremiah 29 to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived, and this applies to us as well. We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence. The peace and prosperity of our society, not to mention our personal peace and prosperity, depend on it. And the political sphere certainly is one of the institutions of culture which will make its indelible stamp on the peace and prosperity of the society. Christians therefore should have an interest in the political process when their form of government allows it, as ours does. To turn our backs on politics would mean to turn our backs in part to the command of God to seek the peace and prosperity of our nation. We may debate amongst ourselves which political positions to promote and how much emphasis should be given to the political process, but the interest and involvement in politics which we see among the "religious right" is in itself a good thing. But, it must always be accompanied by the realization that we are participating in the politics of Babylon. What should we hope to gain by our cultural, including political, activity? Only a relatively better life for society, ourselves, and our children in the years to come than what we would otherwise face. We seek not the destruction of our enemies, but simply a modestly better society which in the future will face exactly the same kinds of threats and require the same sort of opposition. Perhaps we can turn America back to the culture of the 1950's. But the 1960's will always follow.

Our first hope naturally is for the peace and prosperity of our nation. But perhaps we should be secretly pleased when these turn into disorder and depression. We have noted how many Christians today yearn for the days of public virtue present years ago in our nation's history. It seems that there is little doubt that as far as public virtue goes America has seen better days. But when we see how such memories distort the biblical understanding that we live in Babylon, when we see how they cause our hopes to seek fulfillment not in the next world, but in this, when we see how they paint a falsely idyllic picture in our minds which we ignorantly project into the future, does it not make us at least wonder how much good such relatively peaceful and prosperous days really do. If God answered our prayers and blessed our cultural efforts by bringing us days of unparalleled peace and prosperity, would that not in itself be a tremendous temptation to set our sights no higher than Babylon? Are not days such as ours good reminders of what Babylon really is—a pagan, depraved, and hopeless place over which an angel from heaven will one day shout: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great" (Rev. 18:2)? The Israelites were apparently satisfied with the peace and prosperity of Babylon— only a tiny fraction of them returned to the Promised Land when the opportunity came. Will we as a church do any better?

Yes, let us pray for the peace and prosperity of our land for the sake of the physical well-being of ourselves and our children. But let us also be thankful for God's often disappointing answers for the sake of the spiritual well-being of his church.

Evanston, Illinois