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The Transformationalist Approach to Culture

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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The third post-Christendom approach to culture is the one kingdom, or transformationalist, posture. This position appeals to the redemption motif in Scripture, namely that God desires to redeem all of his creation and that the church is already involved in that process through cultural redemption. This, they argue, is a continuation of the creation mandate1 that was interrupted by the Fall, and thus the Great Commission2) is essentially a continuation of that original mandate this side of the cross. Although they recognize antithesis between the values of Christianity and the values of the world’s system, they nevertheless tend to emphasize common grace, which gives all of culture a neutral, or even positive, framework for engagement. They accomplish this through a distinction between worldview and culture. The worldviews of believers and unbelievers are at complete odds with one another, but the cultural material they use to express their worldviews is neutral in itself. Cornelius Plantinga summarizes this perspective well: “All has been created good, including the full range of human cultures that emerge when humans act according to God’s design.”3

Those defending this position typically classify themselves as Reformed followers of John Calvin through the thinking of Abraham Kuyper. Of course, as the historical survey above illustrates, there are those in the Reformed camps who insist that the transformationalist have departed from the teachings of both Calvin and Kuyper, which is why the monikers “Neo-Calvinist” or “Neo-Kuyperian” are used to describe them. Popular defenders of variations of the transformationalist position include Cornelius Plantinga (Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living), Albert Wolters (Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview), and Michael Goheen (Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview).

Perhaps one of the most popular and influential proponents of the transformationalist approach is Albert Wolters, who seeks to articulate a “reformational worldview” in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Wolters very much reflects Kuyper in the aim of his book, which he says “is an attempt to spell out the content of a biblical worldview and its significance for our lives as we seek to be obedient to the Scripture.”4 This is not just any “biblical worldview,” however; Wolters specifically calls it “reformational” and in particular ties his understanding to the Dutch reformed movement. Essential to his “reformational worldview” is the idea that all of the scriptural concepts of salvation apply not just to individuals, but to the entire creation:

The reformational worldview takes all the key terms in this ecumenical Trinitarian confession in a universal, all-encompassing sense. The terms “reconciled,” “created,” “fallen,” “world,” “renews,” and “Kingdom of God” are held to be cosmic in scope. In principle, nothing apart from God himself falls outside the range of these foundational realities of biblical religion (11).

He repudiates what he calls the “dualistic worldview,” which distinguishes between “sacred” and “secular.” Instead, Wolter’s primary thesis is that “the redemption in Jesus Christ means the restoration of an original good creation” in its entirety (12).

Wolters explores the transformationalist motif of creation, fall, and redemption, developed first by Herman Dooyeweerd. Creation, Wolters argues, is “the correlation of the sovereign activity of the Creator and the created order,” and thus it is intrinsically good (14). This truism extends beyond simply what God has directly created to “the structures of society, to the world of art, to business and commerce. Human civilization is normed throughout. . . . There is nothing in human life that does not belong to the created order” (25). In fact, the original creation was essentially empty, and “people must now carry on the work of development: by being fruitful they must fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even more. Mankind, as God’s representatives on earth, carry on where God left off” (41). This objective is known as the “creation mandate.” Wolters claims that the history of mankind has been a progressive “unfolding” of God’s desire for the universe. He argues that despite sin, man’s cultural production will climax one day in “a new heaven and a new earth” that will maintain an “essential continuity with our experience now” (48). Thus Wolters argues for an essential goodness of creation, including the later human cultural developments.

Although creation itself—and by extension culture—is inherently good, mankind’s fall into sin did have certain consequences, what Wolters describes as “catastrophic significance for creation as a whole” (53). Sin created the possibility of perversion of God’s creation. However, he is quick to insist that “sin neither abolishes nor becomes identified with creation.” Rather, it “introduces an entirely new dimension to the created order” (57). In order to explain the relationship between the intrinsically good creation and the effects of sin, Wolters introduces the ideas of “structure” and “direction.” Structure “refers to the order of creation,” the basic “nature” created by God and thus inherently good (59). Direction is a relationship toward or away from God. “Anything in creation,” according to Wolters,” “can be directed either toward or away from God—that is, directed either in obedience or disobedience to his law” (59). The structure of creation itself presents limits as to how warped it can be turned, which is what Wolters describes as “common grace.”

This framework allows him to discuss elements in culture that in themselves are rooted in the created order (structure) but nevertheless have been used in ways contrary to God’s will (direction). Creation, Wolters argues, was made good, but since the fall mankind has directed various elements of creation away from God, God’s desire is to redeem these elements and redirect them. He argues that “dualists” often reject the structure instead of simply dealing with its direction.

The “reformational worldview,” according to Wolters, seeks to redeem elements whose structures are rooted in the created order and thus good, but whose direction has been warped by fallen mankind. “The original good creation is to be restored” (71). This, according to Wolters, extends to all realms of human development including marriage, emotions, sexuality, politics, art, and business. This is God’s plan, insists Wolters, and it is also the mission of all Christians: “The obvious implication is that the new humanity (God’s people) is called to promote renewal in every department of creation” (73). Thus for the transformationalist, all cultural activity is kingdom work.5

Wolters’ perspective well summarizes the transformationalist view. The strength of this model is that it recognizes the inherent goodness of God’s original creation as well as the mandate for God’s people to be active in his world, cultivating what he has given them and actively living out their faith in every sphere of life. But Wolters’ book also demonstrates most transformationalists’ failure to recognize several key distinctions in their argumentation. First, Wolters fails to distinguish between God’s creation and man’s creation. He often conflates the two categories, equating the intrinsic goodness of God’s handiwork with that which mankind produces. He is correct that everything God creates is intrinsically good and that even the act of human creation is a good thing. However, to insist that every product of man’s hand is therefore also intrinsically good is to slide dangerously close to Pelagianism.

Second, Wolters fails to distinguish between what might be called elements and their forms. He may be correct in that the basic element of human civilization are good, but the forms they take may be intrinsically evil. His structure/direction categories are actually very helpful and have the potential of helping to distinguish between elements (structure) and forms (direction), but he often fails to do so by mis-categorizing forms as elements. He lists several different “structures” that Christians may face, but some of what he lists is actually the form (the direction) of a more basic element (structure). For example, he lists technology as a structure, but technology is actually already a direction itself; it is a form of the more basic element of communication. The same is true for dance and music. In short, Wolters’ structure/direction categories are a good starting point, but the situation is actually often more complex.

The problem with a failure to recognize such distinctions is that the transformationalist position eventually understands culture in general to be neutral. Any “sinful direction” it recognizes is typically limited to the content of a given cultural form but not the form itself. Rather, since forms are characterized as elements (or directions as structures), very few if any cultural forms are judged to be against God’s law. The danger of this view is that anything in culture is fair game for the Christian, and “cultural redemption” means little more than adoption and reorientation of cultural forms that are themselves sinful. Andy Couch astutely observes where the transformationalist approach has often led: “The rise of interest in cultural transformation has been accompanied by a rise in cultural transformation of a different sort—the transformation of the church into the culture’s image.”6

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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. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen 1:28). []
  2. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 18:19-20 []
  3. Cornelius J. Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10–11. []
  4. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Second ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 1. []
  5. See Plantinga, Engaging God’s’ World, 109–13. []
  6. Crouch, Culture Making, 189. []