Coming Together on Culture: Theological Issues

I don’t think you can tell it from reading on the internet, but among many younger leaders with Reformed and evangelical convictions there may be a slow convergence coming on the subject of the mission of the church and the relationship of Christ and culture.

On the surface, the Reformed and evangelical world seems divided between “Cultural Transformationists” and the “Two Kingdoms” views. Transformationists fall into fairly different camps, including the neo-Calvinists who follow Abraham Kuyper, the Christian Right, and the theonomists. Though different in significant ways, they all believe Christians should be about redeeming and changing the culture along Christian lines.

On the other hand, the Two Kingdoms view believes essentially the opposite—that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society. Again, there are very different camps within this stance. The Reformed and Lutheran proponents of the “2K” view believe that Christians do their work in the world alongside nonbelievers on the basis of commonly held moral standards “written on the heart” by natural revelation. Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a “distinctively Christian” way. The Neo-Anabaptists are much more pessimistic than Reformed 2Ks about the systems of the world, which they view as “Empire,” based on violence and greed. However, both groups reject completely the idea that “kingdom work” means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.

Critiquing Both Sides

However, over the last two or three years, several publications have been produced that critique both the Two Kingdoms and Transformationist views. And these books and articles are pointing in a similar direction and are being carefully read and discussed by a wide number of younger leaders. I’m thinking of Don Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, James Hunter’s To Change the World, Dan Strange’s articles (the latest being “Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology” in Themelios, vol 36 issue 2) and Miroslav Volf’s Public Faith. All these works consider the two positions, as they are commonly held today, to be seriously unbalanced.

Transformationism is seen as too triumphalistic, coercive, naïve about sin, and often self-righteous. It does not sufficiently appreciate God’s common grace given to all people. It may not prepare Christians well to make common cause with non-believers for the common good, or to appreciate the goodness of all work, even the most “menial” kind. It is criticized for putting too much emphasis on the intellect—on thinking out your philosophical worldview—and not enough on the piety of the heart and the reordering of our loves. It is critiqued for putting too much hope in and emphasis on Christians taking political power and not enough on their being a faithful presence in the professions and other existing cultural institutions.

The Two Kingdoms approach is seen as too pessimistic about the possibility of social change. Paradoxically, many holding this position are also too naïve and optimistic about the role of common grace in the world. They argue that Christians can work beside non-believers on the basis of common moral intuitions given to all by natural revelation. But Dan Strange in Themelios writes that this idea of common standards does not work well in cultures that have never known Christian influence, and, therefore, “What is often taken as evidence of general revelation . . . in our Western culture may actually be rather the historical influence of special revelation, biblical law, and the gospel.” In short, the Two Kingdoms approach gives too little weight to the fact that every culture is filled with idols, that sin distorts everything, that there can be no final neutrality, and that we need Scripture and the gospel, not just natural revelation, to guide us in our work in the world.

Avoiding the Mistakes

The aforementioned writers call Christians to new balances that honor the insights of both views and avoid the mistakes. One of the balances is between the church and Christians living in society. While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do. Another balance has to do with society’s cultural institutions. Rather than taking them over, or avoiding them as a corrupting influence, or treating them with indifference—Christians are to be a faithful presence within them.

As I said, if you look at the internet you get the strong impression that the Reformed and evangelical world is divided over this issue. I’m sure that is true to some degree, but I’m not sure how sharp the division really is. Many already stand in a middle space between the two, and the authors who have argued for the middle way are being read widely and carefully by the younger Christian leaders I meet. And even though the authors I’ve named do not have identical positions—some are more friendly to one end of the spectrum or the other—my informal analysis of the situation is that these books are slowly bringing churches toward one another not only in their theorizing on this subject, but also in their practice. We’ll look at the practical aspects in an upcoming article.

Editors’ Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • Mark

    It would probably be useful for people criticizing the Two Kingdoms view as described above to read someone other than Horton on the view. I like Horton, but I don’t consider his exposition of the view to be particularly accurate or consistent – with many of the weaknesses listed above.

    But when you read older authors historically who have taken that view you get a rather different perspective, without the issues listed above. The clearest modern writing on that (for any interested parties) is probably the two books by David VanDrunen. If you want a primer on the practical implications, his “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms” is definitely the place to start.

    • Adam


      I agree with you. All I could think as I read through this article is that Keller’s portrayal of the 2K is not fully accurate. He either has not read Van Drunen or doesn’t see him as an important voice in the 2K camp.

      I’m a little disappointed that Keller quoted Dan Strange’s statement regarding common grace and special/general revelation. It’s completely misguided.

      • Warren

        Having read both VanDrunen’s “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms” as well as “Natural Law and the Two Kingdomes – A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought” I found my self wondering how deep Pastor Keller really has dug to understand the 2K he is commenting on.

        • Adam

          I wondered the same thing. And what is surprising is that I think Keller was taught by guys like Meredith Kline during his Seminary days (I could be wrong). Van Drunen’s covenant theology and grid-work for the 2K view is majorly influenced by Kline, so I have always assumed that Keller would understand the 2K. Even if he didn’t agree with 2K, I thought he would understand the view. This article does not reflect that.

          • Aimee Byrd

            I was thinking the same thing as you guys. Having read both VanDrunen’s two books, as well as numerous books by Horton, I did not think this was an accurate portrait of the 2K position. And having seen Horton and VanDrunen interact w/the transformationists on podcasts, the 2k-ers definitely believe that Christians are to have a faithful presence and that our faith does integrate into our everyday living (Keller’s conclusions). They find much of Kuyper’s teachings valuable (i.e. church as institution and organism, spheres of influence). Keller talks about the extremes of the positions, but Horton and VanDrunen do not go to those so-called “extremes.”I think VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms is probably the easiest for a beginner studying this theological topic.

            Also, the only book that Keller mentions that I have read is Carson’s, and that had a very terse description of 2k as well. In one short paragraph (on a whole book on Christ & culture) he writes it off as pretty much an out-of-date, Lutheran view.

            Although I am disappointed in this article, I will say that I am a Keller fan, and I do believe that his work is a great bridge between the two views.

  • Owen

    A helpful, and charitable, piece. I think that Keller is right, and that the camps are likely closer than it may sometimes seem.
    Disagreements remain, but it seems a sign of health that many from both camps would agree with this statement from the conclusion:

    “While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do.”

    Amen, and amen. Very well said. Here’s hoping that this will further the conversation.

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  • Frank Gantz

    I really appreciate this article. The two specific calls for balance are strong game-changing calls. Thanks.

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  • Chris Julien

    I am happy to read articles that summarize large concepts such as the 2K position and “Cultural Transformationist” position, since I have not yet learned about them or read books on them. However, it is disconcerting that some comments are expressing that the information is not quite accurate. Would good sources for more accurate information be Van Drunen’s work?

    Furthermore, I’m looking forward to the next article, which may touch on my practical questions in some way. I don’t quite understand this part of the article, near the end:

    “Another balance has to do with society’s cultural institutions. Rather than taking them over, or avoiding them as a corrupting influence, or treating them with indifference—Christians are to be a faithful presence within them.”

    I guess I just question the wisdom in purposefully entering into institutions that can have a withering effect on our faith. I know that we are Biblically “free” to, say, play video games or watch sports/ play professional sports, but is there true wisdom in entering these spheres? I have heard the transformational side-that we must redeem these areas of culture. But I wonder if all aspects of culture are, in fact, worth redeeming? Is it truly beneficial for a Christian to devote his life to professional video gaming (since that’s what it would require to truly be a presence there) and spend thousands of hours playing video games? And I feel the same way for professional sports. Or maybe a better question is, what does it practically mean to redeem areas of culture?

    I would appreciated any sources and books on these topics, since books and articles hopefully will be more Biblical, balanced, and nuanced than these comments can allow.

    God bless.

  • Paul

    I appreciate the thrust of this piece. I lean towards a transformationalist point of view (although I don’t like using that word). And at the TGC conference I had a chance to ask Horton about great commission and the great commandment. Though his answers weren’t that satisfactory (in the sense of specificity not accuracy), I got the sense that we weren’t that different, rather our emphasis were on different parts that we both believed. Horton didn’t want to lose the distinctness of the Great Commission as the churches primary role, and I personally think that the Great Commission not only loses flavor but is hurt by our lack of emphasis on the great commandment. Thanks Pastor Keller for this post.

  • Keith Daugherty

    I guess what worries me the most is the statement, “So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do.” By this I have to assume you think of the “church” as an institution. But the church was meant to be the followers and disciples of Jesus, in other words..the church is the people, not an institution. If we think of the church as just a religious business institution..then I can agree with your statement, as that is what it has mostly been made into…but that’s not what it was meant to be. It was meant to be the body of Christ, a body of believers and followers of Jesus, who would be different from the world so that the world could see the difference and want it also. Theological debates are fine for those just wanting to debate, but when are we, the church (the people) going to begin being the church and doing what God has called us to do, in order to make God known to the world. As long as we continue to debate on theological issues, we are not fulfilling the Great Commission, thereby not allowing the fullness of the Word to the world so that things may change. I’ve run across many leaders within congregations that don’t even know what discipleship is, they just believe they are part of an religious business entity…until we recognize what the “Church” actually is, there is little chance for any change.

  • Brett

    I appreciate Keller’s last paragraph– I think there is a lot more agreement than disagreement. No need to focus entirely on the disagreements all the time. We need to avoid thinking in terms of “two sides.”

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  • Scott Dennis
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  • Bill

    I think Tim hits the right balance when he writes,

    “The aforementioned writers call Christians to new balances that honor the insights of both views and avoid the mistakes. One of the balances is between the church and Christians living in society. While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do. Another balance has to do with society’s cultural institutions. Rather than taking them over, or avoiding them as a corrupting influence, or treating them with indifference—Christians are to be a faithful presence within them.”

    That being said this is actually the reformed two kingdom position! I would like to see folks from the neo reformed camp (read the Gospel Coalition) embrace it. I get the impression their churches resemble purpose driven churches with big plans to change the local community and the world, with plans like the PEACE plan. It’s time for the neo reformed churches ( read Mark Driscoll and others) to get the church out of social transformation programs.

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  • Steve Cornell

    Content to live in a kind of Christian subculture, too many Christians abandon their identity as light to the world and salt to the earth. Some just demonize culture and politics as evil and posture themselves against the world. Others have made the mistake of trying to reform culture with a so-called “moral majority.” But over the last several decades, there has been a renewed interest in culture and politics as agents of change. I’ve been encouraged by much of the recent focus on this important subject.

    Yet with the renewed interest, we must be careful not to de-emphasize the priority of the spiritual dimension of transformation. I realize that the size and perplexity of our problems tempt us to become increasingly horizontal in our focus. But we must not neglect the connection between the vertical (our Father in Heaven) and the horizontal (our neighbor on earth). Christians must live with deep connections between earth and heaven. Jesus taught us to ask our Father that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So while we are physical beings with bodily needs and social beings with community and developmental needs, we are also spiritual beings with a need to be right with God.

    Culture and the role of things like politics and law are generally horizontal agents of change. These are mostly external answers to “renewal” based on external mechanisms. They offer solutions to our problems and the promotion of human flourishing in the here and now — often enacted apart from spiritual salvation. They focus primarily on an Act/Consequence model for change as a primary emphasis for transformation.

    But while recognizing a place for this model for change, Christians seek a wider and deeper transformation. Political and cultural changes (as important as they are) cannot adequately address our deepest needs. In more technical terms, we emphasize a need for ontological change (for inner regeneration) that includes a strong teleological focus (a hope and a future beyond the temporal world) (see: Titus 3:3-7; II Corinthians 4:16-18).

    Ontological is a word that has to do with one’s being not just behavior.
    Teleological is a word that has to with the “end” or “fulfillment.” It looks beyond the temporal to the final. This model for change expands “Act/Consequence” to “Being/Behavior/Consequence/Future.”

    The teleological dimension of transformation is God’s provision of hope and purpose — things that matter at some level to rational people and that must shape a Christian understanding of influences like culture and politics. Christian thinking and living cannot happen apart from the telos.

    External mechanisms like laws, customs, cultures and politics will not address the depth of the human problem. On a Christian view, these external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. So we insist that making external adjustments like putting the “right” party in political office or changing laws and policies will not address our deepest needs.

    Christians must recognize a need for ontological transformation (regeneration), but they must equally confess that we cannot produce this change in ourselves or in others.

    Take parenting for example. As parents we can (and should) address matters of the heart and ask our children to consider “heart issues.” But we cannot give them a new heart (to use New Covenant terms). God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).

    We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of the image of God in us (II Corinthians 3:18). We need the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” “to make his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). “All this is from God” (II Corinthians 5:18). On this account, we must consider transformation in the overall picture of:

    A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
    A glory we fell from in disobedience (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9).
    A glory being restored in us (through God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 6:23: II Cor. 3:18)
    A glory fully restored (despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18; Revelation 21:1-5).

    We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). This is ontological change. And while it doesn’t erase or eradicate the flesh/sin nature, it changes the focal point for transformation from law to grace and from flesh to Spirit. From a Christian perspective, these are matters that foundational to culture and political agents of change. I am not suggesting that we must impose these on culture and politics. Nor am I suggesting that other goods can’t be offered unless the spiritual is included.

    But transformation of human existence (both individually and in community), from a Christian perspective must prioritize the ontological dimension (i. e. “being,” not just behavior). This change is not subtraction but addition. The flesh is not eradicated but God gives the Holy Spirit – “whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:6-7). It is the foundational priority for all change (see: II Corinthians 4:16-18).

    Yet God made humans as social beings. We are not meant to be alone (and we know it). Our lives depend on others and we were designed to flourish in community. But human relationships are more often the source of our deepest problems. Maintaining peace is a perplexing and painful project on almost every level of existence. God’s answer for our social and community needs is the Church. The work of Christ on earth cannot be considered separate from the Church. He is the one who said, “I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

    The Church as God’s new community is not merely an organization but an organism. In some ontologically organic way, each believer (upon faith in Christ) is immersed into a living community or body of believers to form God’s new society.

    Each local Church is made up of people who have experienced and are experiencing ontological transformation — though outwardly perishing, yet inwardly being renewed day by day — with a shared teleological vision — “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

    Should these communities (local Churches) be exemplars of the kind of ideal toward which human flourishing happens at its best?

  • chris hutchinson

    Let me try to summarize the long (and largely correct in my view) comment from Mr. Cornell in two words: read Philemon.

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  • James Moon

    I agree with Pastor Tim Keller that we need to be a faithful presence within the institutions we have to day, and that we should be in between the extremes. At the same time, maybe both the neo-reformed and the anabaptists are correct as well.

    The new Cavinists (which I say I’m part of) is right that if indeed Christ’s Kingdom has been inaugurated, then we can be a source of gospel transformation for the glory of God of these very corrupt institutions, beginning with our own hearts and then effecting policies from a new heart. It begins though with recognizing how sinful we humans are. However, the anabaptists are right in that they may see the effect of that sin when multiplied with power. Eg. the effect of Kim Jong Il’s sins translates into the persecution of thousands of Christians.

    I think we Christians need to assess how culture which is very well connected to politics is being played out in both redeeming and sinful ways here in the United States.

    Democrats, Republicans… Both are subject to the corrupting influences of the richest and most powerful industries which govern today’s culture. Lobbying and campaign funding works, or else they would not continue to do it. (a short clip by a Harvard scholar on this- State-Corporate complex)

    The founding fathers after debate and prayer, produced the Constitution that limits the federal government from becoming too big– However, the U.S. federal government whose army is 7 times bigger than even China is the mechanism by which the most powerful keep their power, whether it’s through subsidies (oil companies), bailouts (top banks), contracts (weapons industry). (I personally think the size needs to be shrunk so that it can’t be used by certain individuals to run trans-national corporations when there’s no good demand for their services or goods like the weapons industry).

    The federal government keeps the richest and most powerful on top, and both Democrats and Republicans have been influenced (whether through campaign funds or lobbying). President Obama is no exception. Congress as well is not representative of the all the people, nor a representative sample of the middle class nor those considered in poverty, , but rather the affluent. Could any of us afford the costs of running commercials? Therefore, the interests of the most powerful will more likely be represented.

    Some think that increasing taxes and revenue in order to redistribute it would mean that all of a sudden the federal government would put poverty at the top agenda item? When did that ever happen. What about health care? Obama in reality has just solidified the monopoly power of a few HMO’s, Big Pharma, and for-profit hosptials with mandatory heath insurance and taken power away from doctors,nurses, and patients. Foreign aid? The majority of the 1-2% of the budget allocated towards it goes to nation building, Israel, and 3 times more to Israel’s ‘enemies.’ The only industry that profits is the war industry with all these wars. Obama is only 1 of 2 G20 countries who did not fulfil his 2010 pledges towards the fund to fight HIV/AIDS (a dramatic decrease from what Bush gave in 2008).

    Now, here’s my plug into some research I did and I title it, 30 open U.S. secrets that may shock you. You can come away from it with your own conclusions but most of these are from liberal sites.

    I personally feel the church needs to wake up on how Satan runs this world. Indeed, as the ESV has put it, the root of all kinds of evil is the love of money.

    • Keith

      That tumbler link doesn’t work?

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  • Jon Orcutt

    Might it be that we need to get back to the Bible to discern the matter rather than locating a “balanced” mid-point position between two (ill defined and somewhat elastic) views? Maybe there is a third view that hasn’t been considered. Maybe the Westminster Divines are closer to the mark than we contemporaries give them credit. Is seeking to find common ground between the two views, both of which find a wide variety of expression within each camp, a truly Biblical (and Reformed)approach? What we have in operation here is more man-centered “perspectival” nonsense instead of searching the Scriptures in order to define the matter and to bring the various views which span the spectrum under the laser beam of God’s Word. We will not find the answer somewhere within the community of beliefs or perspectives, but within the pages of Holy Scripture. Sadly, this point is too simplistic in many Reformed circles, today.

    Quoting Keller: “The aforementioned writers call Christians to new balances that honor the insights of both views and avoid the mistakes. One of the balances is between the church and Christians living in society. While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do. Another balance has to do with society’s cultural institutions. Rather than taking them over, or avoiding them as a corrupting influence, or treating them with indifference—Christians are to be a faithful presence within them.”

    Has anybody suggested that maybe some of these “cultural institutions” are ill-founded, ungodly and need to be eliminated altogether? And, what does Keller mean when he speaks of “justice”? Are we to understand it as he has defined it in his book, Generous Justice? Being a theological and political conservative, I perceive the 2K view (and some of the weak transformationist views) as a ploy to mute politically and socially conservative Christians who are perceived as embarrassing, naive, ignorant sheep blindly following the Republican Party.

  • lander

    Thank you to both Keller and Horton. We can walk and chew theology at the same time.

    I read a CT article recently praising a large church that does a massively energetic plan serving Muslim immigrants. The lay leaders lamented there are no conversions or disciples made–but they persist in doing social service to “love people to Christ”.

    It’s a fine program, I’m sure. I bet it is friendlier than the State’s. No doubt servants are learning to love their neighbor in practical ways.

    But no disciples are made (because no Gospel is preached, though Christ’s “love” is demonstrated). I wonder, seriously wonder, ‘is this Jesus’ mission or am I narrow and cold-hearted to think it isn’t?’

    Dear Keller-Carson-Horton-Piper-Dever-Ortlund… please help the local non-celeb pastor dude out!

    Pastors get weary of activists and their accusations that the church is never “doing” anything and is not “making a difference” by “loving the city” and “giving away its resources”.

    It’s tiresome to have someone who’s house is in disorder, whose marriage is shaky, who’s income is insufficient for their famlily’s needs and are themselves on the edge of needing the church’s benevolence beacuse they are drowning in loans… complain that average size churches do not do what Warren’s PEACE plan (boomers) is doing or Keller’s love NYC plan (hipsters) is doing.

    Equally problematic is the second career exec who leaves a perfectly good job to use their skills to show the church how to do its mission–without being called to a gospel ministry that makes disciples. So much for the tithes from that guy. Now he wants the church’s pennies to support his parachurch vision.

    I imagine telling them all–in apocolyptic prophetic pulpit rant: “Go into all the world and knock yourself out transforming your world through social service!–but I have two sermons to do, a part-time job to get to, a family to raise, a discipleship group to pray with, and a nap to take (waking up in time to see the second half), so quit expecting me to be CEO of the Para-Red Cross, the Christendom Community College, the Every Tribe Cultural Center and your crazy understanding of this little church’s vision. And as you leave today, don’t forget to be salt’n’ light, a faithful presence at work and home! See you next week. Do come back-you’ll need re-salinated…”

    Is it not enough to preach and teach the gospel in such a way so that faithful disciples reflect Christ in their spheres of influence and do their duty? Do I have to have “vision for the city” when I don’t have a vision for making through my day?

    If you’re a huge resource church, go for it and burn out your people “transforming your world” and watch the revolving door spin them out of your church into the growing population of “the formerly-churched-who-trickle-back-to-smaller-churches-that-don’t-wear-them-out-with-guilt” church.

    I wonder how much of the social justice resurgence among some evangelical churches is out of shame and a desire to gain acceptance with worldly critics and avoid the stereotype of being uncool since educating and clothing immigrants is the ONLY acceptable mission for the church according to the NYT and MSNBC and also the boot-strapping unctous self-righteousnes of Fox (e.g., O’Reilly gives his profits to the troops).

    End of rant. Back to the sermon.

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