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Christ and Culture in the Old Testament

If the Bible is our guide for faith and practice, it seems to me that it will serve us in our quest to know how best to interact with our culture as Christians. But when we come to Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture, we see only half of the Bible considered- the New Testament. Is there something we can learn from the Old Testament to help us know how to interact with the world around us?

It is Niebuhr’s theological convictions that keep him away from the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, in his discussion of Christ and Culture. This is why every example he gives in his book are only from the New Testament.

Another reason Niebuhr might shy away from the Old Testament is because it is a discussion of Christ and culture, and Christ doesn’t appear until the New Testament. If this is true, the New Testament is the only part of the Scriptures that we can consider in our discussion.

I don’t agree with Niebuhr’s view of Scripture in either case. I consider the entire Bible the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God, from which we can gleam truth and guidance for how we as God’s people can interact with our culture. On top of that I believe that not only is Jesus found in the Old Testament, but it is about him (Luke 24.13-35) and he is even inherit in it (Genesis 3.15).

If this is true, and we can gleam from the Old Testament guidance for how we as Christians can best interact with the world, then what about the Centerist positions. One of the things that distinguishes the Centrist positions from the Radical position is their higher view of Christ. The Centrist positions believe that Jesus is fully divine something which the Old Testament is, for the most part, silent. Sure, you might be able to find a couple of obscure proof-texts that seem to show that the Christ will be divine, but it is far from explicit. Does the Old Testament, therefore, relegate us to choosing one of the two Radical positions (Christ of Culture and Christ Against Culture)?

No because there are more things that distinguish the Radical from the Centrist positions than just their Christology. The Centrist positions also have stronger views of sin and grace. And this is merely what all the Centrist positions have in common. Christ and Culture in Paradox is different than Christ Against Culture because it compartmentalizes a Christian’s interaction with Culture rather than avoiding it altogether. Christ Above Culture is different than Christ of Culture because, although it accepts some parts of culture, it does so in order to promote Christ rather than culture as an end in itself.

Therefore, not only can we use the Old Testament to know how Christians can best interact with their culture (unlike Niebuhr) but any of the possible solutions could be gleaned from it. To ask what the Old Testament can teach us about how to interact with our culture seems, therefore, to be a fruitful question. I will investigate this more in this blog.

If the Old Testament can enlighten Christians on how best to interact with their culture, what does it teach us?

When I first think of how the Old Testament interacts with culture I think of Christ Against Culture. A primary focus of the Old Testament is creating a separate people who don’t worship other Gods or resemble the nations around them in any way. Isn’t this (at least) part of the purpose of the dietary restrictions- so they won’t be like the people around them?

As I keep reading the Old Testament, another position becomes available. Pretty soon God and his people are setting up an entire nation- a Yahwistic Culture. This is more characteristic of the Christ of Culture paradigm. In this view Christ (God) is the supreme example of someone in the culture. How is God viewed in this culture? Holy and separate, like his people are supposed to be.

This might seem like a contradiction- that the Old Testament promotes both Christ Against Culture and Christ of Culture but it depends on how you look at it. If you compare God’s people to the people around them, they are to be resistant to their cultural influences (Opposition). On the other hand, if you think of God’s people as a nation, they are to conform to the standards of this Divine Culture (Agreement).

Is this the end of our discussion? No. As things get more complicated in Israel’s history, so do their approaches to culture. Think about Daniel, for instance. He was a young Jewish boy exiled to Babylon. What is he to do in this pagan culture. He is picked (with a few other friends) as the best of the youth of Babylon and groomed to be one of it’s leaders. One of the first things they do is feed them- nothing strange to anyone else but these Jewish boys. They can’t eat these foods because they were offered to pagan Gods and prepared in unclean ways. They take a stand against their culture and refuse to pollute themselves.

So far this is a great example of Christ Against Culture until you read that they were being educated in this culture’s literature and knowledge. It didn’t stop there- they even excelled in these subjects (Daniel 1.17-20).

Did Daniel and his comrades sell out? Had they given into their culture? No, the compartmentalized different parts of their life, holding them in a paradox. Their religious life was one thing- they kept themselves loyal to God- but for their civic life they worked hard. They are perhaps the greatest examples of Christ and Culture in Paradox in the entire Bible.

Later we read about another young Israelite interacting with the complexities of a life in exile- but this time they approach it with a different perspective. Esther is a beautiful, young Jewish girl who gets caught up in quite a mess. The incompetent and impotent king of Persia executes his wife before he realizes that he needs a Queen. He searches his kingdom for suitable candidates, and Esther finds herself among them, placed in the harem.

I don’t need to go into graphic detail about what beautiful young women do as members of the harem, but Esther did them. Why else would she be picked as the best of the lot, and become Queen? All this happens without even a reference to her God. While Daniel took a stand against his culture and wouldn’t eat their food, Esther goes all the way and becomes the banquet! Has Esther completely sold out? Has she become the worst example of Christ of Culture?

No because she uses her position in her culture for the ultimate glory of God (like Christ Above Culture). Under the advice of her closest relative, she uses her position to save God’s people from genocide.

Is this it? Not when you read the prophets. There are a couple of themes consistent throughout them that seems to promote the Christ Transforms Culture paradigm. One of these is the universality of God. Throughout the prophets, they condemn not only God’s people but the nations around them. Both groups are equally condemned for their injustice and harsh treatment of people. It seems that God wants things to be better for people whether or not they believe in him. God wants all cultures transformed, not necessarily into Christian/Godly cultures, but fair and equitable ones.

Does considering the Old Testament’s guidance to how we should interact with culture bring us any closer to a definitive solution? It doesn’t seem so. Like I have discussed before, there is too much to consider to make a conclusive, “This is the way God wants us to act” answer. Nevertheless, some of the unique aspects of the Old Testament over the New gives us a different perspective to our question. For instance, government and cultural issues are much more explicit in the Old Testament, they are mere afterthoughts in the New. The Old Testament’s extensive use of narrative gives us many different examples of people interacting with their culture (although just because someone did something, doesn’t mean that was the right way to do it). Clearly, it is worth our time to investigate the Old Testament so we, as Christians, can learn how best to approach our culture.

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