Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.


*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.

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  1. Jay Bailey   •  

    You are right that church history is very important. Without studying the history of the church universal we don’t understand why we profess what we believe. Going back in time to the church fathers we can better understand the richness of our faith and keep us from the errors of the past. I have found that it helps me with assurance and confidence to see these great saints of old who thought so deeply and gave their lives to the gospel but who were men that had flaws just like me. Looking back helps us understand that today most heresies are repackaged heresies of old and we can recognize these more clearly. People who neglect the history going all the way back to the apostles and church councils will miss out on the reasons they can be sure of what they profess and lose an appreciation for all of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the denominational spectrum of Christianity. Speaking of Kuyper who was one of my favorites on the sovereignty of God I will leave you with my favorite quote of his. “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”
    – Abraham Kuyper

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, thank you. Great point. Theology was never meant to be done in isolation from the church universal. We have so much to learn from the great fathers of the faith. A corollary fact is that we need to spend as much or more time reading “old” books as we do reading “new” books. And you are spot on about the Kuyper quote, which is priceless, because it encapsulates the great doctrine of Christ’s Lordship which we consistently neglect when it comes to cultural matters.

  3. Lynn Mitchell   •  

    Dr Ashford
    I have been reading and listening. I definitely believe you are beating the correct drum. I only need clarification on two things. 1. Why would you have to pray without ceasing in the suana/banya. I long for the banya everytime I travel to Eastern Europe. I am guessing that if you went to the banya often that would explain why you only needed one suitcase of clothes. 2. Did you know that they play volleyball at the swimming facilities in the same thing they swim in. I guess I am just glad we were not playing basketball.

    Now seriously, do you see the Enlightenment as a direct cause or mitigating factor in our seeming disconnect from engaging culture? In other words, at best has reason caused us to see our perspective as superior and anything else as primitive which leads us to try and impose our culture as opposed to make a kingdom culture? Randy Stark rights about “The Victory of Reason.” Was it really a victory?
    Perhaps also the Enlightenment emphasis of the individual as autonomous also helps to relegate religion as a compartmentalized aspect of a culture because it is a compartmentalized aspect of many so-called Christians. Once Christianity becomes a whole-of Life-worship then maybe we can be culture makers.
    I think the problem stems from a rationalizing of the gospel to a set of rational facts that must be aquiesced opposed to a complete allegiance to and identification with Jesus.
    Thanks for holding the bar high.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Lynn, thank you for your incisive comments (except for the banya comments, which were less incisive…). :-) Yes, I do see the Enlightenment as a causal factor in this situation. Allow me to add a few thoughts.

    In the wake of the Enlightenment, and increasing optimism about the progress of science, American evangelicals often fled the academy and other influential sectors of American life (sciences, arts, etc.), thereby handing over those sectors to secular and other non-evangelical thinkers. As such, we do not have much of a voice in some of the most influential circles in our country. James Davison Hunter’s new book points out how we have little or no influence among the cultural elite.

    Second, we have refrained from engaging the culture because placed value on inner spiritual piety (and rightly so) and outer moral actions such as sexual conduct (and rightly so) but not very much emphasis on the spiritual value of doing *all things* to the glory of God (the academy, arts, science, public square, etc.).

  5. Garrett   •  

    What are some books you would reccommend by Kuyper?

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Garrett, I’ll give you three titles, for starters:
    1. Kuyper, “Lectures on Calvinism.” These are the published version of his lectures at Princeton. He is distinguishing himself from both modernism and Catholicism as he sets forth a full-orbed Christian world and life view.
    2. T. M. Moore, “Culture Matters.” Moore’s book contains five historical case studies, one of which is Kuyper. Concise, well-written.
    3. Peter Heslam “Creating a Christian Worldview.” A fine biography and intellectual survey of Kuyper’s work.

  7. Elizabeth   •  

    I guess City of God is next on my reading list?

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Elizabeth, City of God is an excellent book to read. Probably the best edition is the abridged version, with a foreword by Vernon Bourke.

  9. Pingback: Teologia şi cultura: studiu pe caz – Augustin | Marius Cruceru

  10. Owen   •  

    Elegant work, Bruce. Loved this.

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Owen, honored that you would take the time to read and comment. Thank you muchly.

  12. Pingback: Theology and Culture (5): Case Studies | For Christ and Culture

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