Christian Culture in Church History
A common error in the study of church history is to seek to find a version of one’s present branch of Christianity in the past. Since Christian doctrine and practice develop over the centuries, trying to find oneself in church history is like trying to find out how people in Shakespeare’s era texted one another, or trying to understand what Edward II’s position on globalism was. You won’t find covenant theology or dispensationalism (in the self-conscious, self-identified form) before the 17th century, cessationism (as a reaction to Pentecostalism) before the twentieth, or Baptists who hold to justification by faith before the 17th. There are no self-conscious, self-identified credobaptist, compatibilist, cessationist, creationist, complementarian, and chiliast believers like me more than a hundred years ago. This doesn’t mean those positions are not biblical or did not exist in church history; it simply means the faith once delivered to the saints has been progressively understood by the saints. I won’t find in the early church a theological understanding that took 2018 years to develop.
Similarly, if it is an error to imagine some ancient version of one’s own church or denomination, it is equally an error to imagine that somewhere in history there existed a pristine and nearly perfect form of Christianity. The perfect group chosen usually depends upon the sympathies of the speaker: some of the Reformed imagine it was Calvin’s Geneva, certain Methodists picture the revivals under Wesley similarly, some Baptists think that the Metropolitan Tabernacle under Spurgeon was almost the Millennium, some anti-Calvinists pin their hopes on some pre-Reformation groups, such as the Waldenses, others romanticize the Middle Ages. But all of these had points of doctrine, practice and worship that were less than perfect, and revealed a church still in development. No straight line from the apostles to the present day exists.
Recognizing these two errors might lead us to a faulty conclusion: the notion that there has never been an instance of Christian culture. To agree that no perfect example of Christianity exists in the past is not to assert that Christian culture has never existed. Quite the contrary.
This error comes from trying to judge or think about Christian culture in the abstract, rather than in the form of cultural phenomena and cultural artifacts. Concrete cultural artifacts produced by Christians exist in abundance: songs, paintings, poems, buildings, treatises, histories, sermons, buildings, customs, and the like. Wherever Christianity has taken hold of the majority of a population in one place, it will soon be seen shaping the sagas, political arrangements, clothing, technologies, and even language itself. If a culture is a religion externalized, then wherever Christianity becomes dominant, cultural forms representing that worldview will appear.
At what point can we say a form of Christian culture was in a certain place, for a certain time? It depends on how dominant Christianity became, how long its dominance held, and how healthy the form of Christianity was that was known and practiced. But that it has done so in many times and places is beyond dispute.
A second error follows the first. In trying to imagine a Christian culture in the abstract, a person assumes its incarnation will look identical in every instance. When he finds that Christians of varying ethnicities developed different forms of music, architecture, and literature, he wrongly concludes that one cannot speak about Christian culture at all. To him, the differences seem to eliminate any unifying principle.
What our interlocutor misses is glaring. The most interesting thing about comparing different cultural artifacts from different Christian communities is not that they are different, it is how similar they are. Indeed, while no one expects Armenian and Chinese Christianities to be identical, what is fascinating is to find equivalence in cultural forms between Christians separated by thousands of miles or hundreds of years.
Equivalence is the proper word. When two forms are equivalent between two groups, they may not share the same shape or incarnation, but they carry the same meaning in their respective communities. They are like the same idea in different languages. Two reverent Christian communities will produce different cultural artifacts, but they will both have words for “reverence”, both have postures for reverence, both have combinations of musical notes for reverence. Often enough, a visitor from the one will be able to broadly decode the reverential tone of a form in the other. All this speaks of equivalence between two different instances of Christian culture.
Church history reveals something far more interesting than a pristine Christian culture in one time and place: very different ethnicities, languages, and traditions that often enough produced artifacts that have passed into common use of Christians around the world. The equivalence was sufficient to have “catholic” value. The “leaven” of Christianity leavened the whole cultural lump of particular peoples and particular times, and so produced different Christian cultures.
But where we find strong equivalences in forms and artifacts between folk cultures, since they shared Christianity, we find something like Christian culture in its most general and extensive sense. These equivalences make up a universal, two thousand year-old tradition of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. And a tradition is simply a culture stretched over time.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.