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The Christendom Approach to Culture

This entry is part 4 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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Before exploring approaches to cultural engagement post-Christendom, or even that of Christendom itself, it is necessary to consider what happened before and during the period immediately after the Edict of Milan in 313. Early debates about approaches to culture are evident, for example, in differences between Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), quoted two weeks ago for his emphasis upon the antithesis between Christianity and pagan philosophy, and his contemporary Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215), who interacted positively with Greek philosophy in his Christian polemics.1 Thus the tension between antithesis and commonality begins quite early. However, even those like Clement who were willing to engage with pagan thought on its own terms were not tolerant of every aspect of pagan society; indeed, while Clement appreciated some aspects of Greek philosophy, he repudiated Gnosticism and spoke out against pagan worship music.2 This kind of critical eye toward all aspects of pagan culture characterizes many of these early theologians, especially with regard to cultural practices that came directly from pagan worship, music in particular. James McKinnon suggests that “there is hardly a major church father from the fourth century who does not inveigh against pagan musical practice in the strongest language,”3 and Calvin Stapert notes that this uniformity is especially striking considering how different those writers were in other respects. Whether they were Greek-speaking or Latin-speaking, pre- or post-Constantine, conciliatory or antagonistic toward pagan learning, lifelong Christians or converts—whatever their background or personality, they agreed that Christians should distance themselves from some of the music of the surrounding culture.”4

These sorts of tensions are evident in early Christian documents such as the Didache and especially in the anonymous second-century Epistle to Diognetus. The Didache emphasizes the antithesis that exists between the “two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference.”5 The Epistle to Diognetus affirms this antithesis as well, but goes one step further by suggesting that there also exists commonality between the two, again presenting a tension between being in, but not of, the world.6

The legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in 313 changes the pictures somewhat, however. Because Christianity is made the official religion of the empire, some, such as Eusebius (263-339) argue that the Roman empire is now allied to the church, and the full “Christianization” of society is now underway.7 Eusebius’s idea of one-kingdom is eventually adopted by the church during the medieval period, creating what is today known as “Christendom”—an essential fusion of church and state during this time.

Where Augustine (354–430) fits is highly debated. Some, such as Niebuhr, place him in the transformationalist camp. Others, such as David VanDrunen insist that Augustine once again articulates the tension between antithesis and commonality first expressed in the Epistle to Diognetus.8 In his monumental City of God, Augustine argues that there exists a fundamental hostility between the City of God and the City of Man: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”9 For Augustine, the City of God exists in heaven, but even now believers constitute the City of God, though currently only as strangers and pilgrims. The City of Man consists of all unbelievers, and thus these two cities will perpetuate into eternity. Augustine understands these cities to be two completely separate identities differentiated by different lifestyles and loves; however, since the two cities are now “commingled, and as it were entangled together,”10 believers may participate in the City of Man on political and civic levels for the sake of peace. Thus both the themes of antithesis—emphasized in the Didiche, and commonality—found in the Epistle to Diognetus, find expression in Augustine’s City of God. In many ways, because of his emphasis both on antithesis and commonality, Augustine serves as the fountainhead of both two-kingdom and transformationalist points of view. However, as mentioned earlier, Eusebius’s argument eventually takes hold and becomes the Christ above culture framework for the rest of Christendom.

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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. “[Clement] sets out at length the steps by which the Christian should advance to knowledge or understanding (Gnosis). Gnosis is not in opposition to Pistis [faith]; rather it consists in a fuller comprehension of what is already implicit in faith. . . . Clement’s purpose as a teacher and author was, broadly speaking, twofold: to convert the Gnostics of his day whose preoccupation with philosophy and sometimes with religious ideas of paganism had led them into heterodoxy or heresy; and, at the same time, to convince those of his Christian contemporaries who rejected everything in pagan thought as dangerous to belief, that it was possible for an orthodox Christian to acquire a knowledge of dialectic and the best philosophical thought—Stoicism and Platonism as understood in his day—and also a proper understanding of the physical universe. So far from harming the faith of a Christian, this knowledge would help to deepen his understanding of the truth of Christianity” (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire [Ithaca, NT: Cornell University Press, 1979], 58–59). []
  2. “Burlesque singing is the close friend of drunkenness. . . . For if people occupy their time with pipes, and psalteries, and choirs, and dances, and Ebyptian clapping of hands, and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable, beat on cymbals and drums, and make a noise on instruments of delusion. . . . And every improper sight and sound . . . must by all means be excluded; and we must be on guard against whatever pleasure titillates eye and ear, and enervates the soul. For the various spells of the broken strains and plaintive numbers of the Carion muse corrupt men’s morals, drawing to perturbation of mind, by the licentious and mischievous art of music. . . . Let amatory songs be banished far away, and let our songs be hymns to God. . . . For temperate harmonies are to be admitted; but we are to banish as far as possible from our robust mind those liquid harmonies, which, through pernicious arts in the modulations of tones, train to languor and scurrility. But grave and modest strains say farewell to the turbulence of drunkenness. Chromatic harmonies are therefore to be abandoned to immodest revels, and to florid and meretricious music” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 248–49.) “Music is then to be handled for the sake of the embellishment and composure of manners. For instance, at a banquet we pledge each other while the music is playing; soothing by song the eagerness of our desires, and glorifying God for the copious gift of human enjoyments, for His perpetual supply of the food necessary for the growth of the body and the soul. But we must reject superfluous music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to variety,—now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic” (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 500–501.). []
  3. James W. McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 2. []
  4. Calvin R Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 131. []
  5. Cyril C. Richardson, ed., “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Commonly Called the Didache,” in Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier, 1970), 171. []
  6. “The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some, adherents to this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township—Greek or foreign—each man’s lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits” (Maxwell Staniforth, tran., The Epistle to Diognetus, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers [New York: Penguin Books, 1988], 144). []
  7. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, vol. 29, The Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1955), 10.1, 3–4, 8–9. []
  8. “In response [to Eusebius], Augustine articulated a perspective like that of the Epistle to Diognetus, though greatly layered and elaborated” (David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009], 26). []
  9. Augustine, City of God, trans. Markus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 14:28. []
  10.  Ibid., 11.1. []