Book Review

The Calvinistic Concept of Culture by Henry R. Van Til Published by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 245 pages, $4.50.

This is one of twenty-five Choice Evangelical Books of 1959. These books were selected by the editorial staff of Christianity Today because they “propound evangelical perspectives in a significant way, or apply biblical doctrines effectively to modern currents of thought and life.” (See CT, February 15, 1960, for the complete list of choice books. ) It is perhaps not too much to .say that The Calvinistic Concept of Culture is one of the most significant theological book of the decade 1950–1959. We know of no other book which deals so incisively, thoroughly, and relevantly with the relationship or culture and religion from the viewpoint of orthodox Christianity. At the outset one senses the importance of the subject in the thesis: “Calvinism furnishes us with tho only theology of culture that is relevant in the world in which we live, because it is the true theology of the Word.”

The Calvinistic emphasis does not mean, however, that other viewpoints are ignored. The author is both critical and appreciative of the contributions made by others, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists, toward a Christian solution of the problems of culture in the modern world. The most disquieting, tormenting question of our Western culture is exactly this concern for the meaning of life, meaning through which man becomes aware of the totality of his existence. The very crisis of our Western culture, according to Tillich, is the anxiety of the meaningless which besets itBrunner goes so far as to say that ‘meaning is therefore a fundamental factor of culture and civilization...’ But Professor Dooyeweerd exceeds him when he maintains that meaning is the mode of all created being. ‘Meaning…has a religous root and a divine origin’” (pp. 157f.).

Calvinism consistently points to God, the origin of all meaning, and thus shows man how he may have meaningfully and hopefully in a despairing world. The crisis of Western culture is due to man’s turning away from God in order to live for the glorification of man. When God was pronounced irrelevant for man’s life, man was left without anything beyond himself that could give meaning to his life, and thus he became lost in the ambiguities and uncertainties of human existence. The Existentialist philosophers have offered man no help out of his predicament, but have only added to his sense of despair by making man’s calling self-culture, self-creation, and self-fulfillment (pp. 174ff.).

What, then, is the Calvinistic concept of culture? The following points are constantly emphasized by Professor Van Til.

Culture involves the total complex: of man’s creative efforts. It is not to be identified with refinement of manner, social courtesy and urbanity, or appreciation of art, music, and fine literature. Nor is it the achievement of our Western world alone; it does not belong exclusively to “civilized” nations, but even primitive peoples have their own peculiar cultures. Culture consists of “any and all human effort and labor expended upon the cosmos, to unearth its treasures and its riches and bring them into the service of man for the enrichment of human existence unto the glory of God” (pp. 29, 30).

Since man’s whole life is determined by his relationship to God, his culture is religiously oriented and determined. Religion permeates and finds expression in all kinds of cultural activities. Religion, however, is not a part: of culture, since faith is supratemporal, being rooted in man‘s heart out of which are the issues of life. Religious faith, since it transcends all of man’s activities under the sun, is the integrating and motivating principle of man’s cultural striving. Apostasy in man’s heart produces not only a false religion but also a pagan culture, a culture which does not seek God and serve him as the highest good (p. 42). The problem for Christians is to seek not only to live a Christian life, hut to build a Christian culture, since religion and culture are inseparable (pp. 43f.).

Moreover, the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation makes man a responsible cultural agent. “God’s sovereignty is the atmosphere in which the Calvinist lives, the milieu in which he acts as a cultural being. It means that religion is not of life a thing apart, but the end-all and be-all of man’s life under the sun” (p. 53).

Another emphasis in the Calvinistic view of culture is that of the cultural mandate given to man at the outset of history, namely, that he should cultivate the earth, have dominion over it, and subdue it. As the image of God man was placed In this created world to bring to fruition and fulfillment the glorious cosmos, and to role over it and dedicate it to God who is over all. This concept of man’s cultural calling is a major emphasis throughout the book.

Also, the effect of sin on man’s cultural striving is never forgotten. Chapter V especially deals with this matter. Man as a sinner has been ethically alienated from his Creator, but his creaturely capacity for cultural activity remains intact. As a result of sin, “the light of man’s life was extinguished and he now roams in darkness; his existence lost its unifying principle and became broken and disintegrated, and culture lost its true end, the love and service of the God of heaven. Thus religion and culture became divorced, or rather, culture became the end instead of tho means and man sought to find his chief delight in his own creations, the works of his hands” (p. 60).

Christ, however, reconciles man to Cod and thus enables man to fulfill his cultural calling. Christ is the Restorer of culture because he is the second Adam who was set over the works of creation and under whose feet all things arc placed in subjection (Hebrews 2:5–8). The first Adam, who rebelled against God and refused to fulfill his calling, is replaced by Christ, who was both a Substitute to bear the wrath of God against man’s sin and a Replacement to carry out man’s cultural calling in the world. Although Schilder was too severe in his excision of common grace from the cultural situation, according to the author, he was certainly correct in his view of Christ as the Key to Culture (Chapter IX).

Another Calvinistic emphasis in the problem of culture in the radical (going down to the root) antithesis in every sphere of man’s activity. The reader will find a praiseworthy treatment of this important matter in the chapters that deal with the views of Augustine and Abraham Kuyper respectively, and in a separate chapter on Calvinistic Culture and the Antithesis. Augustine believed that the achievements of man·s cultural striving must be permeated and transformed by Christian principles so that we develop a truly God-fearing and God-glorifying culture (civitas dei) instead of the corrupt God-defying culture of the world (civilas terrena). Kuyper developed this idea along the lines of what has been called an organizational antithesis. “The regenerated man must live Pro Rege, for the Kind, in every cultural activity, in every societal relationship and every communal organization…society as a whole must be organized along Christian principles’ (p. 132).

The book however, is not a “rehash” of old Calvinistic ideas. The author is critical of the views of both Kuyper and Schilder; at the same time he offers his own conclusions, based on Scripture, as to what the Christian’s relationship to the world must be, and how the Christian is to fulfill his calling in the world of twentieth century space explorations. Common Grace and the Antithesis are not our only problems today. Science and art and politics have their own peculiar problems, and these problems are all deeply religious, for out of the heart are the issues of life. When these spheres become detached from Christianity, then man worships the knowledge of nature in scientism; he adores the beautiful for its own sake of state supremacy in totalitarianism (p. 227). Modern man has his problems, and only the Christian has any real solutions. But the ignorant Christian, the misinformed or ill-informed Christian, is still wandering in the dark. This book will serve to enlighten and encourage those who wish to serve God meaningfully and fruitfully in a world whose only light and hope is in God’s Word. Joseph A. Hill