Christ the Transformer? A Review Article

Richard M. Gamble

Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History, by C. C. Pecknold. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010, xxii + 174 pages, $23.00, paper.

Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, by Carl R. Trueman, with a foreword by Peter A. Lillback. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2010, xxvii + 110 pages, $9.99, paper.

Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, edited by David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2010, xx + 326 pages, $19.99, paper.

Sixty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) published Christ and Culture, by some measures a modern classic in the sociology of religion. A professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School at the time, Niebuhr popularized what became, for good or ill, the dominant framework for interpreting the relationship between Christianity and culture. Christ and Culture remains in print after six decades. I have used it myself in college faculty reading groups and in undergraduate seminars. Recently, when I pulled it off my shelf and began re-reading my scrawled marginalia, I was surprised (and relieved) to see how bothered I had been by Niebuhr's system. My frustration may simply have reflected the difference between how a sociologist thinks and how a historians thinks, the one more interested in patterns, the other in exceptions. To be fair, Niebuhr never offered his categories as anything more than a way to systematize tendencies within Christian thought. But it struck me then and does so even more now that his classification of Augustine and Calvin as cultural "conversionists" fails to do justice to their theology. The category "Christ the Transformer of Culture" seems to place the wrong accent on Augustine's and Calvin's theology regarding the church and the world and to miss how profoundly modest and restrained their expectations were for cultural renewal. They might attempt to "baptize" the culture for the church's use, but that undertaking did not entail remaking the whole culture. Certainly, such a transformation would not prove the church's success in fulfilling its unique mission.

Three recent books offer the opportunity to revisit perennial questions raised by the problem of Christ and culture: first, Christianity's proper relationship to politics, and second, John Calvin's reputation and legacy as a transformer of culture. C. C. Pecknold's helpful short volume, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History, draws heavily on the work of Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac (primarily his Corpus Mysticum) and Princeton political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin (primarily the expanded edition of his magnum opus, Politics and Vision). The author's tendency to follow current fashion and overuse the words "construction" and "imagination" ought not to detract from the valuable synthesis and application he provides of Lubac and Wolin. Lubac argued that the corpus mysticum (the mystical body), once confined in Catholic theology to the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, "migrated" in the Middle Ages to the Catholic Church as a whole and then as a way to understand the unity of Catholic society in western Europe. Wolin, according to Pecknold, picked up this insight and carried it further to ask whether the mystical body had "migrated" beyond the ideal of the Christian church and society to the modern nation-state and its institutions.

Pecknold argues that the modern nation-state can hardly be called "secular" because it owes so much to Christianity. The distinctive vocabulary Scripture applies to Christ and his church "migrated" to (or, perhaps more accurately, was appropriated by) the nation-state over the past few hundred years, affecting both church and state. Pecknold leaves no ambiguity: "A new construction of politics arose in the modern period, a politics actively engaged in re-constructing a Christianity that could serve the purposes of national politics." "Modern politics," he continues, "did not simply 'secularize' the world—the last five centuries of modern politics have constructed a purpose-built faith that scholars have come to call 'civil religion'" (xiii). This provocative idea ought to capture the attention of anyone who wrestles with the dual challenge of an American political theology that expects Christianity to participate in a generic civic "faith" and a church all too eager to cooperate in the effort to tame and instrumentalize Christianity into a useful prop for civil religion.

Evidence abounds in the history of Europe since at least the sixteenth century and of America since at least the seventeenth century that emerging nation-states quickly got into the habit of talking about themselves in language once reserved for Israel and the church, including, most obviously, the notion of a chosen people. Pecknold's interpretive framework could be applied in many fruitful directions. Careful historical research remains to be done into the way the nation-state, both consciously and unconsciously, "borrowed" (to use Pecknold's word) the Christian identity. Of particular concern in such research would be the way in which the nation-state tries to fulfill the longing for Christian community within a substitute political body of Christ. America might turn out to be among the worst offenders in this case. For four hundred years, prominent preachers and politicians have had trouble telling the difference between their nation and their church. One of the "borrowings" has clearly been Americans' fondness for a providential history that mimics the Bible's redemptive narrative to the point of obscuring all distinction between sacred and secular history, jumbling it into one bizarre story that flatters our national self-understanding but compromises the uniqueness of Christ's atoning work. Recognizing these "migrations" would equip us to spot the blasphemy inherent in any talk of an American "Gethsemane" or "Calvary" no matter how tempting the metaphors might be in times of crisis. Christianity retooled for use by American politics might still be called "Christianity" and might still resemble it, but it will be an idolatrous Americanism and not the faith once delivered to the saints.

Pecknold's treatment of Calvin as a transitional figure in the political history of the West covers a lot of ground in a few pages. He recognizes Calvin's continuity with the natural law tradition, his complex understanding of church and magistrate as complementary institutions for the sake of social order, and the degree to which Calvin still resembled the medieval world, although he may be guilty of presentism in stressing the degree to which Calvin "mobilized mass sentiment" for political action (110). At times, Pecknold himself seems to lose sight of the crucial distinction between the church as a community and the state as an earthly democracy. By the end of the book, he seems to forget that Christ gathers his chosen people in particular and not "humanity" in general. Christ is betrothed to his bride and not to any generalized "people" living in a political community. And this profound difference calls into question any prospect for "a genuine Christian politics" (141). Any political theology that confuses the church and human communities poses a threat to the good order of both.

Pastors and other leaders in the church cannot be reminded too often of these boundaries and the need to make them as clear as possible to their congregations as appropriate opportunities arise. To this end, Carl Trueman's new book tries to shock complacent American Christians into rethinking the line between their faith and their politics. Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative offers a Brit's-eye view of the cozy but troubling relationship between Christianity and rightwing politics, even among Trueman's fellow Orthodox Presbyterians. He takes on Fox News, the Second Amendment, American exceptionalism, national health care, and the embarrassing Patriot's Bible to ask politically conservative Christians to reexamine what they defend and why they defend it. Primarily, he seeks to move partisan politics of the Right and Left out of the pulpit and pew for the sake of preserving the church's integrity and unique calling in the world. More to the point, "conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas" (xix).

As I began reading Republocrat, my mind went back immediately to the early 1990s when I was fairly new to the Reformed faith and brand new to the OPC. One Sunday after the morning service I happened to mention my reservations about George H. W. Bush's foreign policy. I was immediately rebuked and warned to take care because "this is a Republican church." At the time, I had been thinking a lot about J. Gresham Machen (again, brand new to me) as I worked on my doctoral dissertation. I was struck that day by the distance between Machen's political theology and the one that confronted me in an OPC congregation. Admittedly, I never should have discussed politics in the first place on the Lord's Day and certainly not in such close proximity to worship. Ever since, I have tried hard to keep politics out of church for the sake of both kingdoms. Similar experiences led Trueman to write this timely book.

While faulting the Left for politicizing the faith, Trueman takes aim primarily at self-styled conservatives as the most immediate and least recognized threat to theologically orthodox churches. Trueman affirms an "old-style, just-left-of-center politics" that once addressed basic concerns about "poverty, sanitation, housing, unemployment, [and] hunger" (1). And he laments that that "original vision" has been "hijacked" by radical, postmodern, identity politics in which everybody is a victim. Members of the Old Left, he laments, find themselves with "nowhere to call home" (19).

Trueman provides a helpful and needed reminder about the limits of politics, the power of political ideology to invade the church, and the danger of alienating the lost by implicitly adding politics to our confession of faith. He calls on Christians to be good citizens, to resist the oversimplifications of the media, and to keep our hope for this world modest. "We are stewards who should do the best we can," he writes, "not utopians making heaven on earth" (103). More to the point, "You can talk theonomy, theocracy, or Christian nation if you wish, but in the real world of the here and now, Christians have to cast their votes in terms of the situation, as we currently know it" (107). This advice ought to provoke a much-needed conversation among confessional Christians about how to be faithful citizens simultaneously of the temporal and eternal cities.

Such a conversation needs to move beyond Christianity and politics to confront the wider problem of the church and culture. Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, the final volume in the series of five hundredth anniversary books on Calvin edited by David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett, shows why. The best of the essays in this final volume, such as Paul Jones's on "Calvinism and Music" and Darryl Hart's on Calvin and the practice of history, do the hard work of combing through Calvin's sermons and commentaries to look at what the Reformer actually taught about the arts, providence, economics, politics, and so forth. Some of the other essays, though written by capable Reformed scholars who know their fields of expertise, rely more on plausible supposition than painstaking demonstration to connect Calvin to his legacy (real or imagined) in the modern world. They tend to assume the very things they ought to be proving. Surely Ed Payne's sweeping claim "that all the best of modern science and medicine is a direct legacy from Calvin" (254) attempts too much.

Though not the intention of this volume, these essays raise a few fundamental questions about our whole approach to Calvin and his legacy. They point first of all to the difference between extrapolation from scanty (or absent) evidence on the one hand and the hard work of historical reasoning from sources on the other. Limiting ourselves to surviving evidence, we might have to make more modest claims about Calvin and his legacy and resort less to the strategy of saying that a certain tendency is "Calvinistic." We would be more likely to resist seeing things we favor in the modern world (such as democracy, limited government, free-market economics, and the wonders of modern science) and tracing them back to Calvin—or, conversely, seeing things we lament in the modern world and attributing them to a "falling away" from Calvinism. Is it really fair to John Calvin to make him comment on everything we happen to be interested in, whether he did so or not? Do we end up genuinely understanding him, his achievement and, yes, his limitations, if we turn him into a progenitor of so much? History is not an unbroken, cumulative story of "contributions" to the modern world. We need a Calvin in context and not simply a Calvin as precursor to us. We need more than a plausible genealogy that leads from Geneva to modern America.

Secondly, are these ideas distinctively Calvinist or even more generally Protestant? It would take much effort to sort this out. We ought to keep in mind that Calvin was one mediating point between the Europe that was and the Europe that was coming to be. Paul Jones's chapter on music again in this instance shows the benefits of a more nuanced approach to Calvin and his world. He sifts through evidence for what Calvin borrowed, adapted, built, and then left as a legacy. Calvin modified existing forms. And if this was the case in the arts, it is reasonable to expect to find this same intricate pattern of influence, adaptation, and transmission in political theory, theology, economics, and science. History presents us with a highly complex set of relationships, and we must be sensitive to the complex interplay among past, present, and future.

Thirdly, these essays raise the problem of how we ought to judge Calvinism's success in the world. With an eye on the future, Hall asks in his conclusion, "What worked and what didn't for Calvinism over the last half a millennium?" But before we can talk about anything "working," we have to ask by what standard we measure success in the church. Do we judge our faith and practice by the world's standard? Do we do so by the extent of our power and growth and revolutionary impact on the world? Or does Christ demand faithfulness of us whether or not "success" in his service is visible? Christ calls his disciples to take up their cross daily, to bear his shame and reproach, and to suffer with him in certain ways. None of this looks like success to human eyes. The gospel itself brings division in this world. God's work often remains hidden and even disguised as failure. Hall, however, concludes that a successful "faith ... will win cultures and triumph over human evil" (301). But where in Scripture or our confessions do we find the mandate to "win cultures" or the promise that in this world we will "triumph over human evil"?

Fourthly, these essays provide an opportunity to reconsider the state of Calvinism as a "worldview" in twenty-first-century America. The idea of worldview is meant to hold these essays together (the book's subtitle is "Exploring a Worldview"), and some of the writers emphasize this theme more than others. Hall zeroes in on Calvinism as a worldview in the last chapter. His claim that Calvin meant to "project a unified worldview" and that Calvinism as a worldview has a bright future seems to assume that framing Calvinism as a worldview in the first place was and remains a good idea. The whole concept of "worldview" may soon appear to have been a time-bound artifact of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We may outgrow it as we have other ideas. And Reformed Christians need to be ready to think about Calvinism outside of that framework no matter how useful it might once have been.

Worldview found its way into Reformed circles in America via the Scottish theologian James Orr and the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper. Orr made his case for Calvinism as a worldview in his Kerr Lectures in 1890-91, and Kuyper, who read Orr's lectures, did so in 1902-3 in his celebrated Stone Lectures at Princeton.[1] Both Orr and Kuyper consciously adopted the vocabulary and architecture of worldview from German theologians and philosophers who popularized the idea in the nineteenth century. And they did so in part for apologetic purposes, intending to arm Christianity (and Calvinism in particular in Kuyper's case) to fight modernism. Their logic seemed to be that Reformed theologians needed to battle the host of wrong worldviews armed with the sole true one. As effective as that might have been, were there also costs to turning the Christian faith and Calvin's theology into a system in an age of system-builders? Systems are by their very nature reductionist, radical simplifications of reality, though they claim to be comprehensive. In the midst of all the dangerous "isms" of the nineteenth century, was it wise to turn Calvinism into an ideology, into a system among systems, even if we claimed it was the one right system that defeats all the competition?

Related to the problem of worldview, it would be worthwhile to look at what Calvin actually said (or didn't say) about cultural transformation, specifically about the church as "salt and light" and about the "creation mandate" given to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Calvin sounds far more restrained and modest than modern transformationalists out to conquer the world in his name. In his commentary on Matthew 5:13, for instance, Calvin sustains the historic understanding of Jesus's salt metaphor as applying specifically to the Apostles and the teaching ministry of the Word and therefore of general benefit "to all the flock of Christ." Absent here is any agenda for cultural renewal. Regarding the creation mandate, Calvin in his Institutes (1.15.22) and in his commentary on Genesis 1:26 and 2:15 draws attention to God's goodness to man manifest in his bountiful provision for him in creation and man's responsibility to make "frugal and moderate use" of that creation as a good steward. Calvin here sounds more like Wendell Berry than like a modern scientist or capitalist. It is difficult to find a transformationalist manifesto in Calvin's writings in the very places where it ought to be easiest to find, especially if Niebuhr was right to tag the reformer as a transformer of culture.

Niebuhr was right back in 1951 to highlight the church's perennial challenge to relate Christ to culture with wisdom and discernment. Over the past two thousand years, shifting political, economic, and social institutions have kept the culture a moving target, and the church has had to renegotiate the degree of antithesis and commonality possible and necessary in its constant struggle to remain true to the gospel. The right answer to the "Christ and culture" problem was not the same under Roman persecution as within modern America's religious free market. Each generation of Christians, living in the world under unique circumstances, has had to reconsider what faithfulness demanded in a particular time and place. Though the Scripture equipped the church with sufficient guidance to frame the problem correctly, a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of Christ and culture proved elusive over the centuries for the simple reason that the culture continued to change. Church leaders, now as always, will have to remain vigilant to keep the proper boundary between Christ and culture.


[1] For Kuyper's debt to Orr, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 88-96.

Richard M. Gamble, a ruling elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Anna Margaret Ross Professor of History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, April 2011.

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Ordained Servant: April 2011

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