It is this, the human ability to create and transmit culture, that differentiates us as humans from the rest of the animal world.
—Nancy Jarvis, “What Is a Culture?”
Religion and Culture
Culture is religion externalized. Or put the other way around, our religious commitments always manifest themselves in our values and choices. They also find expression in our technology, science, and art. We live out what we hold highest in our work and play. Life, then, in its fullness is religion, because all people “will walk everyone in the name of his god” (Mic. 4:5). The transmission of a culture is, then, the transmission of a religion—not merely of a creed or liturgy, but of a way of life that is rooted in a commitment that comes from the heart. Cultural transmission is also a matter of choice. It isn’t a matter of genetics, but of intelligent volition. Men and women choose to walk in the name of a specific god. And humans tend to pass on their faith and highest commitments to their cultural heirs.
So the name of the god be worshipped is important. We need to know whom or what we serve. It’s a pretty important thing to know what our deity demands of us. The question “How shall we then live?” is a valid response to any and all metaphysical assumptions. Ideas have consequences. (And the commitments behind those ideas also have consequences.) Humans then, by nature, live out the consequences of their faith each and every day.
If the god we profess is remote, hidden, or silent, then “god” functionally is a mere abstraction or name without substance. Our real god—our real lawgiver—always plays closer to home. For example, our god might be our own passion or our thirst for power. Maybe our god is our political agenda or our most cherished ideals. The litmus test in looking for our deity is this: Why do we do the things we do? How do we justify our choices, our values, and our lives? Whom do we serve, and whom do we trust?
The God Who Is There
The God of Scripture is the Creator of heaven and earth (Gen. 1). He created time, space, and matter and of course he exists beyond their possibilities and constraints. He is both infinite and personal. You could say he’s even tri-personal, in fact. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is both transcendent and immanent. The heaven of heavens cannot contain Him (1 Kings 8:27), and yet He dwells with the humble and contrite (Isa. 57:15). He has life in Himself. He is self-existent and self-sufficient (John 5:26), yet He delights in the worship of His creatures (John 4:23). He is infinite in His perfections and incomprehensible in His being, but He speaks to His people in words that they can understand. He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He is sovereign over all of creation and all of history. He is Lord of heaven and earth, but always distinct from both.
There is an infinite gulf between God’s essence and that of His creatures. Theologians speak of the Creator/creature distinction. Man is God’s image, but he shares nothing of His Being. Man isn’t God and can’t become God. God became man once—a while back, in the Person of Jesus Christ. And even in this Incarnation, we’re told there is no confusion or intermingling of the humanity and the deity. Jesus is one Christ, “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person” (Athanasian Creed). He now exists “in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Formula of Chalcedon). Practically, this means that Christianity is completely antithetical to pantheistic mysticism and magic. God meets with man, not through mystical absorption, but by a sort of unilateral but gracious covenant.
The Next Generation
With only a short time left on his clock, Moses delivered a set of sermons and instructions to the children of Israel as they were encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan. These sermons became the Book of Deuteronomy. Their goal was to prepare a new generation for covenant renewal and conquest of the Promised Land.
Moses’ first sermon emphasizes three things: the court system that God had ordained for Israel, the record of Israel’s desert wanderings, and the dangers of idolatry. All of these things have to do with the revelation and representation of God’s sovereign authority in Israel’s own history. God ordained a civil government to bear a measure of His authority and to enforce His written Law. Israel must submit to it. God had been at work in Israel’s history, accomplishing His own purposes. Israel must understand the history of His intervention in order to know herself and to prepare for her God-ordained destiny. And Israel must not mess up her relationship with the God by reducing Him to the level of the visual and sensual. Israel must live by every word of God, not by image and imagination. For Israel, cultural continuity rested upon God’s word-centered revelation of Himself.
Moses’ second sermon restates God’s law. At the heart of the Law is the Shemah: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Religion must be an affair of the heart, the intellect, and the body. The Ten Commandments (Deut. 5) amplify and explain what it means to love God. Moses adds case laws that apply the Law to the practical situations that Israel will face in the Promised Land (Deut. 12—26). The Law is a cultural transmission on two levels. First, this new generation is to take this Law into their own hearts and they are to teach it diligently to their children. Second, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities are to enforce the same law in Israel’s public life. The Law will ethically define Israel’s culture and society.
Moses’ third sermon enumerates at great length the sanctions of the law. That is, it specifies the practical blessings that Israel should expect if she keeps God’s commandments and the practical curses that will follow if she turns to idolatry and self-will. His sermon also includes instructions for formal covenant renewal. Israel must swear a self-maledictory oath. She must call God to witness and judge her national life. This oath makes cultural and covenantal continuity for Israel more than a private matter of the heart or mind. This public act, this oath-centered liturgy before God and man, acknowledges the supernatural nature of covenant continuity. Israel must do more than speak politely of Yahweh. Israel must acknowledge His sovereignty publicly, legally, and liturgically.
The fourth sermon and the instructions that surround it speak to the formal issues of cultural transmission and covenantal continuity: a new leader (Joshua), the preservation and use of the book of the Law, a song of warning that Israel is to memorize and sing throughout her generations, and Moses’ final blessing and testament to the Tribes. The transmission of Israel’s covenantal heritage is not to be left to chance. Israel is to consciously aim at passing the torch of faith, covenant, and culture without a stumble or a fumble.
God’s people, their culture, and the covenant with God are inextricably interwoven. Covenant in this case means the word-centered revelation of God in history, the ethical rather than metaphysical relationship of God. Covenant life is the opposite of emotional or self-willed individualism and opposed to private pietism and mysticism. It’s also opposed to collectivism and statism since there is only one God, one covenant Lord who requires an absolute allegiance.
For the rest of the world, culture and faith are also woven tight. But because every non-Christian faith assumes the continuity of being, they refuse to accept the prospect of covenant life as possible or meaningful. The remaining options are technocratic control (materialism) and magical manipulation (pantheism)—or various blends of the two. In any case, the means of cultural transmission always ends up being brute power. One generation has to impose its worldview and culture on the next by force. Liturgy for the nonbeliever becomes behavioral modification or magic.
Man is a creature designed to create and transmit culture. This comes natural in some way since he is made in the image of God. When man walks in the name of his Creator, he labors in the suburbs of the New Jerusalem, the coming kingdom of God. His work has eternal significance. When man walks in the name of other gods, he abandons covenant life for self-deification. This is a culture of stagnation and eventually self-destruction. This is America’s course unless we repent. The way out is simple: The meek inherit the Earth (Matt. 5:5). This has always been the formula for cultural success and is the reality of covenant life.
For Further Reading:
Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Conception of Culture (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 2001).
Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (N.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976).
David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope, Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999).
Ray Sutton, That Ye May Prosper, Dominion by Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economic, 1987).
James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).
Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, The Covenant Structure in Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963).