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Are NT “World”-related Terms Equivalent to “Culture”?

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Last time I argued that “race”-related terms in the New Testament cannot be equated with the contemporary idea of “culture.” The second category of NT terms that may indicate a parallel with the contemporary idea of “culture” is words related to the “world order.” These terms include αἰών (aiōn; “age,” “world”) and κόσμος (kosmos; “world”). These terms can simply refer to the physical earth, people in general, or a period of time. However, at least three passages in particular use “world”-related terms in ways that might be construed as parallel to the anthropological idea of culture.

The first is John 17:14-16:

I have given them your word, and the world [κόσμος] has hated them because they are not of the world [κόσμου], just as I am not of the world [κόσμου]. I do not ask that you take them out of the world [κόσμου], but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world [κόσμου], just as I am not of the world [κόσμου].

Here κόσμος is being used to identify an ordered world-system. In this context it is not necessarily positive or negative; all that is indicated is that (1) Christ is not “of” it, (2) believers are not “of” it, but they are “in” it, and (3) the “evil one” is in some way related to it. While this seems to have a connection with the contemporary idea of culture, this ordered system includes the values and orientation that create culture but does not appear to identify culture itself.

A related passage is 1 John 2:15-17. Here κόσμος is treated decidedly negatively:

Do not love the world [κόσμον] or the things in the world [κόσμῳ]. If anyone loves the world [κόσμον], the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world [κόσμῳ]—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world [κόσμου]. And the world [κόσμος] is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Barket notes that John uses κόσμος here far differently than he did in John 3:16: “Here, however, the world is presented as the evil system totally under the grip of the devil (cf. 1 John 5:19; John 12:31; 14:30). It is the ‘godless world’ (NEB), the world of ‘emptiness and evil,’ the world of enmity against God (James 4:4).”1 Once again, however, this world-system does not appear to be the same thing as what anthropologists call culture. Not all of what mankind produces is godless, empty, or at enmity with God.

The final passage is Romans 12:2. This time the term in question is αἰών and once again this “world”-related term is treated negatively:

Do not be conformed to this world [αἰῶνι], but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The term appears to be used nearly synonymously here with how John used κόσμος in John 14 and 1 John 2; it describes a world-system to which believers are not to be conformed. But once again, the term appears to signify an ordered system of values alienated from God rather than signifying culture itself as defined by anthropologists.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews Through Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 321. []

5 Responses to Are NT “World”-related Terms Equivalent to “Culture”?

  1. So if "the world" is not something that the Christian is to be a part of, conformed to and something Christ himself would not pray for … does that not necessarily show "the world" to be at enmity with God? Does it not show that fallen man is a necessary "culture making creature" – and that created culture is fallen and tainted at every turn? Therefore if God calls out/distinguishes something/someone as holy – then it is no longer what it used to be – it has a new purpose in relation to Him? Have I missed the point completely? Still a newbie ever-learning. Thanks, David Jacks

  2. Good questions that I think get at the heart of what I'm trying to do in this series. I'm suggesting a couple things:

    1. "World" in the NT is not the same thing as what we mean by culture. So I'm not really making any definitive points about culture in this post. Next week I'll be explaining what I think the best NT equivalent to our understanding of "culture" is.

    2. "World" in the NT is not always a bad thing; it depends on the context. Sometimes "world" is simply neutral, sometimes it is good (Jesus loves it, after all), and sometimes it is completely contrary to God (friendship with that is hatred toward God!).

    So everything you said certainly is true of one use of "world" in the NT, and it certainly affects "culture" (whatever that is; more next week). So I agree with everything you said in that respect.

  3. You are going to make me write a book :) and I will have to include a chapter on the word "world". I am sorry that I jumped in on an existing series – I will go back to find the first parts. I think I struggle with the word "world" being "neutral". I know in John's writings (gospel and epistles) he uses this word in some various ways but I do not remember a place were it is "neutral". Let me dig around a bit. Meanwhile, I will await the next part of the series. BTW, good stuff thanks for sharing. Cheers and Thanks. David

  4. NOTE: just had an aha moment. I think I have been equating "world" and "culture" in my thinking. Let's see – Thanks again.

  5. Right, that's sort of what I'm arguing here: world and culture are not the same thing.

    I think with the neutrality thing, I'm thinking of passages like John 3:16. The point of the use of the word "world" there is not to emphasize that it is good or bad.

    However, I agree that in most of the uses in the NT, the sense is certainly bad, and I also affirm total depravity, so in that sense even "world" as "neutral" is in reality "depraved." I'm looking more for how it's used in context, and either way, I wouldn't equate "world" with "culture."

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