If the idea of “culture” in the NT is essentially “behavior,” then the biblical approach to culture becomes more apparent. From the NT discussions of ἀναστροφή, several important realities emerge.
First, unholy culture exists. The Bible is clear that mankind, left to himself, is utterly corrupt. Even though God created all things good and even manifests himself generally in that creation,1 mankind continually rejects him and is therefore under God’s condemnation.2 Mankind not only refuses God’s revelation, it cannot accept God on its own.3
Disagreement over whether mankind is entirely corrupt was at the heart of debates between the Roman Church and the Reformers.4 The Christendom, Christ above culture model believed that the church and society could be fused based on the assumption that there was an inherent goodness present even among unbelievers. Each of the post-Christendom approaches to culture, however, rejected this perspective on the basis of the doctrine of antithesis: depravity creates a strict division between the values of Christians and unbelievers.
Sinful culture exists because culture, understood as behavior, is a reflection of values. The apostle Paul speaks of his former sinful culture when he says, “For you have heard of my former life (ἀναστροφήν) in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” (Gal 1:13). His was a culture of hatred and violence toward the true people of God. Furthermore, Peter speaks of “the sensual conduct (ἀσελγείᾳ ἀναστροφῆς) of the wicked” (2 Pet 2:7) and “those who live (ἀναστρεφομένους) in error” (2 Peter 2:18). Particular behaviors are sinful when they are expressions of sinful values. The values of Judaism ran contrary to the values of Christianity, and therefore it was Paul’s culture to persecute Christians. The values of wickedness lead to a certain kind of sensual culture.
The transformationalists are correct when they identify the center of antithesis between good and evil in worldview, but they are incorrect to insist that culture is neutral. Worldview and culture are inextricably linked. One’s behavior is an expression of his values; sinful values produce sinful behavior. Therefore an antithesis between the culture of believers and unbelievers exists when unbelievers’ behavior reflects sinful values.
- “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). [↩]
- “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:18-32). [↩]
- “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him; and he cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). [↩]
- See Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1969). [↩]