Foreword to John Barber, The Road from Eden1
by John M. Frame
Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
From the biblical beginnings of their faith, Christians have wrestled with the relation of Christ to culture. In the Old Testament period, Israel developed a culture of its own, under the impetus of divine revelation, but also in constant interaction with the “nations,” from Egypt, to Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Between the testaments, Greece and Rome entered their picture. The New Testament envisages the Kingdom of God coming to all the nations of the world, and the Christians faced the problem of what to accept and what to reject in the culture of these nations.
Since then, the Christian church has developed its own cultures in different places, or, as some would prefer, subcultures. It has also influenced the larger cultures in which it has been placed. Negatively, it has experienced oppression, even persecution, by cultures opposed to its gospel.
These experiences have led Christians to reflect on the nature of culture, biblical norms for culture, and especially the relation of Christ to the cultures in which they lived. Although the earliest church was often persecuted, they nevertheless sought peace with the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and the writings of the Fathers explore ways of achieving that without compromising the standards revealed in Scripture. Augustine’s City of God is a great attempt to describe the positive role of God’s people in a non-Christian society. Medieval thinkers, writing in a culture actually dominated by the church, wrote with other perspectives. And the Reformation asked how our participation in culture is affected by the gospel of salvation by faith alone. Modern civilization raised new questions of this kind, answered differently by the many new denominations, sects, and traditions of professing Christianity.
In the twentieth century, much of this discussion was formalized under the label “theology of culture.” H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture2 was often the starting point for such discussions, with its five models of the Christ-Culture relation: Christ Against Culture (some early church fathers), The Christ of Culture (e.g. Clement of Alexandria), Christ Above Culture (many medieval thinkers including Aquinas), Christ and Culture in Paradox (Luther’s “two kingdoms”), and Christ the Transformer of Culture (many Reformed thinkers, such as Abraham Kuyper).
Evangelical Protestantism in America has been rather late in entering this discussion. Some Reformed churches of Dutch background have discussed these issues in the tradition of Kuyper and his followers, particularly Herman Dooyeweerd. The Fundamentalist movement often took a “Christ against culture” position, opposing what they perceived as decadence—the use of alcohol, secularization of schools and so on. Francis Schaeffer developed a more comprehensive and sophisticated picture in his How Then Shall We Live?,3 proposing a Christian analysis of the decline of society from the ancient Greeks to the present. He used a number of examples from the worlds of art and philosophy. But Schaeffer was primarily an evangelist rather than a historical scholar, and many readers for that reason failed to take his work as a serious contribution to the discussion.
Enter John Barber, who brings to these discussions an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of western culture, with a deep understanding of art, music, sociology, politics, philosophy, theology, and their interactions. To this he adds great powers of analysis and evaluation. He is a former student and long-time friend of mine, with whom I have had many useful conversations on these matters.
He is deeply committed to Christ and to a Reformed theological understanding of the Bible. His general position is what Niebuhr called Christ the transformer of culture, which I applaud, both because I agree with it, and because rather confused versions of “Christ and culture in paradox” have been gaining influence in recent discussions. Barber’s work is a powerful antidote to these confusions.
Barber cannot be accused of proposing simple answers. He is a master of the complexities of actual culture and of the discussions concerning it. Wherever the reader stands philosophically or theologically, he will learn that the issues are more complex than he had before imagined, and he will have large amounts of new knowledge at his disposal. Further, he will gain much enjoyment from the clear and winsome style of the book, remarkable amid such a torrent of information and technical expertise.
This book sets the Christ and Culture discussion on a higher plane. It should be the starting point of all further conversations about these matters.