Introducing Cultural Theology
Posted on July 12, 2017
Ours is an age of specialization. This is particularly true of vocation. At one time, “doctor” denoted an expert in general medicine; he was called a GP, General Practitioner. Some simply called him “The family doctor.” Today it seems as though GP’s are few and specialists are many: podiatrists, cardiologists, oncologists, ophthalmologists, neurosurgeons, osteopaths, anesthesiologists, hematologists and scores more. The same is true of law. The wide-ranging expert in law is hard to find. Instead, we have tax attorneys, trial attorneys, estate attorneys, criminal attorneys, bankruptcy attorneys, immigration attorneys and many else besides. Specialization might be most prominent in academia. There are so academic specialties today that attempting to catalog even many would severely understate the number. As much as we might complain about overspecialization, we benefit from it and wouldn’t want to return to the days of generalizers. After all, we wouldn’t want a podiatrist operating on our brain, or an immigration attorney representing us in court on charges of tax evasion, or a Latinist teaching us engineering. Although generalists, with their bird’s-eye-view of the landscape, are necessary, specialists have their place.
What is theology?
They have their place in theology. Theology literally means “the study of God.” In one sense, everybody is a theologian, even a professed atheist, because every person has a view of and interest in God. But when we use the term theology, we usually denote an intentional, systematic investigation of God and his revelation. Theology defined in this way invites specialization. Traditionally those specialties have included natural theology (the study of nature as God’s creation), biblical theology (the study of the progressive unfolding of truth in the Bible), systematic theology (the arrangement of biblical teaching under prominent thematic heads), historical theology (the study of what Christians believed at various times during church history), and pastoral (or practical) theology (what the Bible says about day-to-day individual and church life). These specializations include their own divisions: biblical theology is often divided into Old and New Testament theology. Systematic theology includes soteriology (doctrine of salvation), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and eschatology (doctrine of the last things). Historical theology consists of various eras: patristic theology, medieval theology, Reformation theology, and modern theology. Pastoral theology may divide into spiritual formation, prayer, church growth, spiritual leadership, and similar topics. All of these are theological specialties. Like doctors and attorneys, theologians generally [!] specialize. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps best known as a proponent of natural theology. Karl Barth was a systematic theologian. Jaroslav Pelikan was a historical theologian. Charles Swindoll is a pastoral theologian. Theologians specialize within their specialties. Karl Barth specialized in revelation. J. N. D. Kelley, a historical theologian, focused on patristics. John Walvoord, a systematic theologian, devoted his attention to eschatology. Theology is such a wide field that it’s impossible for any one theologian to master all of it — not even towering theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin or Barth.
What is cultural theology?
An emerging specialty in theology is cultural theology. It is defined as the study of what God’s full revelation teaches about culture and applying that teaching to pressing cultural issues. Because the issues of our time have become specialized, the study of revelation must include a special(ized) concern for culture. Of course, culture has been around as long as man has, and therefore cultural theology is not a specialty whose need has only recently evolved. However, dramatic developments of culture in modern times (in, for example, ideology, technology, jurisprudence, medicine, economics, and the arts) press serious Christians for a coherent grasp of godly truth to address and govern them. For instance, what does God’s revelation have to say to the political views known as socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism? Or ideologies like Marxism, feminism, Islamism, transgenderism, and white privilege? What about new technologies like stem-cell research, genetic manipulation, cloning, transhumanism, and surrogate motherhood? Consider theories of law: originalism, progressivism, sociological law, utilitarian law, and natural law. These developments, contemporary or traditional, and many others require a distinctly Christian evaluation. After all, Christians must glorify God, whether eating or drinking or in doing whatever else they do (1 Cor. 10:31) — including how to vote in a political election, whether to support contraception or same-sex marriage, and which movies and TV programs to watch. Christian painters and architects must know which art and architecture glorifies God. Christian code-writers should consider how their Faith should shape computer technology. Christian business owners and salespersons should know God’s law as it pertains to business exchanges and selling products and services. Cultural theology is not, therefore, limited to intellectual fields like scholarship and ideology. It also must deal with ordinary, tactile culture as we encounter it in our daily lives.
What is God’s revelation?
I have been using the expression “God’s revelation,” “revelation,” and “God’s law,” and it’s imperative to specify what I mean. After all, if God’s revelation and law is the source of our knowledge about how to apply truth to culture, we need to know where to find it. We find it in three places: creation (Rom. 1:20), Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1–3), and the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16–17). These are not three revelations, but a single revelation in three forms: they work together, and they may not be isolated from one another. For example, the Bible is not a catalog of moral religious truths that may be severed from Jesus Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. Nor is creation designed to be isolated from Jesus and the Bible (“natural theology” or “natural law”). Nor may Jesus Christ be sequestered from the Bible, from which alone we can infallibly learn about him. The Bible occupies a priority in this triad, not because it is inherently more important than creation or Jesus Christ, but because it is the only source of objective, infallible knowledge of the other two. We can learn powerful truths from creation (Ps. 19:1–6), but not the truths of salvation and many specifics of morality. We can know of the historic person of Jesus Christ apart from the Bible, but almost nothing else authoritative about him. Jesus Christ is more important than the Bible (he saves us from our sins; the Bible can’t), but the Bible holds a certain priority in revelation.
Since the Bible was written many centuries ago and most of the modern cultural topics had not yet appeared, it obviously doesn’t (and couldn’t) address most of these topics explicitly; but it does address them implicitly. Cornelius Van Til wrote:
The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from. It tells us about theism as well as about Christianity. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the word of God that you can separate the so-called religious and moral instruction of the Bible from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.
The Bible is the revelatory light in terms of which we — and everybody — should see and interpret all of life.
Is the Bible designed to govern all of life?
Behind cultural theology is the rock-solid conviction that the Christian Faith is designed to shape (and reshape) all of human life. This conviction is rooted in what has been called the cultural mandate. God created man to create culture for his glory. Adam and Eve weren’t created merely to fellowship with God. They were also created to exert godly dominion over the rest of creation, to serve as God’s stewards, his “deputy governors,” in J. I. Packer’s words, over the earth. They were his royal representatives, mediating God’s will to the rest of creation. We read in Genesis 1:26 — “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion . . . .’”
Dominion (stewardship) over creation is man’s and woman’s chief earthly calling. Man’s basic calling is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism), but his chief calling as regards the earth is to subdue it for God’s glory.
Man interacts with God’s creation to lovingly impose God’s prescriptive will on it. Man isn’t called to leave creation as it is. He interacts with creation, adding his God-given creativity and ingenuity to improve it. This means that although creation as it came from God’s hand was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), it wasn’t everything God intended it to be. In short, creation isn’t sufficient; God wants culture, too. Just as man was to grow and mature in devotion and obedience to God, so creation itself was to grow and mature under man’s guidance. God didn’t create fruit trees simply for man to admire the fruit; the fruit (from all but one tree) was to be eaten. Horses weren’t simply to be contemplated; they were to be used for human transport. Water wasn’t to be merely marveled over; it was to be used for consumption and cleaning and bathing. That is, the creation, including man himself, wasn’t to be static, but dynamic.
The cultural mandate is a pre-Fall (or creational) ordinance. Did God rescind the cultural mandate after the Fall? By no means. In Genesis 9:1–4, after the universal Flood, God re-stated to Noah the mandate he first gave in Eden. Sin did, however, introduce two modifications. First, because of sin, man would suffer from the hardships posed by a creation under the curse. Man’s work would be tiresome; woman’s childbearing would be painful (Gen. 3:16–19). The cultural mandate would be hard work.
Cultural theology shows Christians how to think and act in this way: culturally, not just individually or familially or ecclesiastically. With a passionate commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit’s power, it investigates both creation and the Bible (as a united revelation) to determine how man and woman are to progressively align contemporary culture to God’s will.
To advocate cultural theology is not the same as suggesting that theology must “attempt to relate [God’s] word to a particular age and cultural milieu.” It doesn’t, for example, merely answer questions like, “How do we explain substitutionary atonement in our highly individualistic and democratic world?” or, “How must we speak so modern man can grasp salvation by grace, since our culture is performance-based?” The task of cultural theology isn’t just to “relate [God’s] word to a particular age and cultural milieu,” but also to relate God’s word to a particular age and cultural milieu on specifically cultural topics. Cultural theology presupposes that the Bible is designed to offer truth and guidance in all areas of life.
This is particularly the case with biblical law: God’s ethical imperatives. The Bible is God’s word, and it’s not God’s word only in matters pertaining to church and prayer and evangelism. The fact is that the Bible has a remarkable lot to say about cultural matters, including instructions about such matters. There are so many, in fact, that one would almost seem to have to work intentionally to miss them. God’s law covers cultural topics as diverse as food, cooking, clothing, personal cleanliness, politics, education, farming, building, music, jurisprudence, money, economics, warfare, health, marriage, crime, penology, abortion, homosexuality, substance abuse, and much, much more.
The problem isn’t that the Bible is silent on cultural topics. The problem is that many Christians “read around” these topics or simply ignore them or find them insignificant. Nor does the fact that the New Testament cancels some of the Old Testament laws (like the sacrificial system and dietary laws) invalidate my point. That point is that the Bible is quite interested in cultural topics; it lays down laws about many of these topics; and we can’t simply dismiss this entire category out of hand.
If God’s word is binding, it’s binding in all that it says, not simply in “spiritual,” heavenly or non-cultural topics. “This book [the Bible], writes Meeter, “therefore, besides teaching us the way of salvation, provides us with the principles which must govern the whole of our life, including our thinking as well as our moral conduct. Not only science and art, but our home-life, our business, our social and political problems must be viewed and solved in the light of Scriptural truth and fall under its direction.”
This doesn’t mean that the Bible is intended to furnish an exhaustive supply of cultural knowledge. It doesn’t tell us the value of pi, the duration of the Ottoman Empire, the recipe for apricot jam, the formula for carbon monoxide, or the details of human DNA. But it does establish the basic principles in terms of which all of these cultural topics and all others must be understood, and it does lay down God’s law on many specific cultural topics. Recent examples of cultural theology include Peter Jones on paganism, Nigel M. de S. Cameron on medicine and biotechnology, Brian G. Mattson on politics, Stephen C. Perks on education, Very S. Poythress on science, and John R. Schneider on economics. John M. Frame; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.; and R. J. Rushdoony have shown how the Bible speaks an authoritative word to a myriad of cultural issues. Joseph Boot has offered a paradigm for this cultural mandate mission in the world.
Is theology primarily for the church?
This means that theology cannot be limited to the church. Some theologians are ecclesiastical or confessional theologians: they are called to provide doctrinal direction to their particular church or denomination, and often to explain and defend that ecclesiastical tradition: Lutheran theology, Baptist theology, Roman Catholic theology, Presbyterian theology, and so on. But if man must live not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth (Matt. 4:4), the entire Bible must govern our lives in their entirety. And if we must glorify God in all that we do (1 Cor. 10:31), we must take God’s word as a lamp to our feet and light to our path (Ps. 119:105) — not just in our individual lives or families or churches, but in our eating and voting and sexual and exercise and spending habits and, more broadly, in economics and technology and theater and movies and education and science and music. The Bible is designed to govern our entire lives, and culture in its entirety. Theology is essential to the life of the church, but must not be limited to the church.
This is not to suggest, however, that cultural theology is uninterested in the church. For starters, cultural theology shows the church the doctrines and ideas she has embraced that have caused her to fail in applying the faith in culture. In addition, it teaches the church cultural truths found in the Bible by which she should exercise the cultural mandate. These are biblical ways to help make the church truly “culturally relevant,” rather than finding ways that the church can ape the culture to attract attendees, which is what church relevance is often thought to entail these days.
Is theology privileged?
When we speak this way, we seem to be veering far away from the concerns of traditional theology. If you pick up almost any textbook on systematic theology, you’ll not see biblical teaching categorized according to economics, education, music, psychology, and technology. This is because these topics, while addressed by the Bible explicitly or implicitly, are not categories most theologians believe most important. Theologians define what the theological categories are. And cultural categories are not deemed most important theologically.
This brings up a vital though perhaps jarring distinction: if man’s chief earthly calling is the cultural mandate, and if the Bible provides the truths in terms of which he must fulfill that mandate, theology as it has been traditionally understood is not the central use of the Bible. Theology is a theoretical science, not unlike biology, mathematics, and language arts. It is man’s attempt to arrange the “data” (biblical revelation) into a systematic, topical order, just as biologists do with their data, i.e., living things. Both of these theoretical sciences are necessary, one dealing with biblical revelation, and one dealing with creational revelation, but are subsets of more fundamental use of the Bible. That use is to fulfill the cultural mandate before the face of the God whom we worship. Systematic theology is one necessary way of doing that, but so is discovering the biblical view of animal treatment, economic market mechanisms, musical beauty, and space travel. These are not somehow less significant or less “theological” than how sin entered the world, how the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ relate, and when Christians might expect the Second Advent. They only seem less important because Christianity has assumed that individual salvation rather than a more comprehensive cultural redemption (of which individual salvation is a central part) is what the Bible is all about.
Is philosophy necessary?
One barrier to many intelligent Christians’ considering a biblical application to culture is that they consider this concern the province of philosophy, not theology. After all, philosophy is defined as “rationally critical thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world (metaphysics or theory of existence), the justification of belief (epistemology or theory of knowledge), and the conduct of life (ethics or theory of value).” Philosophy deals thoughtfully with the broad issues of life, while theology is limited to specific leading themes of the Bible. Historically, Christians have usually considered the Bible (or nature) the source of knowledge for theology, while allowing common, universal reason to be the source for philosophy. Put bluntly, this meant that theology was to be Christian and philosophy a- or non-Christian. Theology was churchly and philosophy was worldly. This also meant that the broad views of culture were not treated in a distinctly Christian way, because they weren’t deemed as significant as theological topics.
Yet it is precisely because what we term philosophy is so broad that a Christian philosophy must inform Christian theology. As Gordon J. Spykman asserts:
[T]heology finds its place within the larger contours of a biblical worldview explicated in a Christian philosophy…. The fundamental premise of this Christian philosophy lies in its commitment to the biblical teaching that all of reality is so ordered by the creative work of God that his Word stands forever as the sovereign, dynamic, redeeming law for all of life. 
If the Bible is designed for all of life, then thinking about all of life in a biblical way is Christian philosophy. In fact, this is just what a Christian or biblical worldview is. If we include cultural theology in what has traditionally been known as philosophy, we can say that philosophy and theology are virtually identical.
In this way, Christian philosophy/theology (which is what cultural theology actually is, a biblical worldview) is our guide for thinking and living in this world. It fulfilled precisely this role among the faithful in the eras covered by biblical history. God created Adam and Eve to think and act in God-honoring ways in a lush, sinless environment, communing with him and stewarding the rest of creation for his glory. After God’s Flood of judgment wiped out nearly the entire human civilization, God repeated the cultural mandate to the godly man Noah, who walked with the Lord God. God soon elected one man, Abram, to father an entire godly race to reside in a specific track of land and act according to his comprehensive word. From this race was to rise the Messiah, God’s anointed One, who would sacrifice his life for the sins of humanity and rise from the dead in great victory to assume his heavenly throne over which he presently rules the earth. Christians, redeemed from their sins by the blood of the Lamb and restored to their status as culture reclaimers, live all of life for God’s glory and, despite great trials and hardships, move forward in great faith, expecting extensive victory in this world. They work faithfully on God’s good earth and anticipate the day when God himself will descend to a renovated and resurrected earth (2 Pet. 3:10–13; Rev. 21:1–7) and dwell eternally with humanity. This will truly be heaven on earth, what God has always intended. Cultural theology is the Christian attempt to provide guidance for this comprehensive historical odyssey.
Cultural theology is the theological project of the Center for Cultural Leadership. The most urgent need of our time is not a revival and restoration of denominational distinctives or an ecclesiastical theology that leaves the culture untouched. It is not simply Christian theology and Christ’s church that are under satanic assault today but the very foundations of our society and even the cosmos itself (to attempt to erase sexual distinctions is to war on the God-created cosmos). H. Even Runner’s words first uttered nearly 50 years ago are even more germane today:
Yet Christianity, in spite of much of the apparent history of the movement, is not a matter merely of devoting a certain part of our life to some or other church institutions or of our giving our assent to this or that more or less orderly body of theological judgments. To be Christian is to live whole human lives in this creation of God’s by the light of God’s word and with the aid of his Spirit. The most fundamental and urgent battle of our time is not to be thought of in the first place as one for the preservation of some familiar and accepted church organization or of some system of theological propositions — though both of these may have their subordinate importance. The struggle of our time goes much deeper: it is a struggle for the religious direction of human society in its totality. The battle of our time is to determine which spirit is to possess our hearts and give direction to our civilization …. Even to preserve the organized churches and whatever of theology may be dear to us we shall have to fight for a more integral Christian faith to sense the religious unity of man’s life in the world, or there will follow the last remaining steps, almost imperceptible in their advance, to a thoroughly secular way of life in which there is no place for the Good Shepherd’s voice. It is not possible in the twentieth [and now twenty-first, PAS] century for Christians to make a good confession only within the secure shadows of the institutional church.
Cultural theology is committed just to this comprehensive program. It is calculated to foster the godly “religious direction of human society in its totality.” Anything less is destined to defeat.