A Dispensational View of Christ and Culture: Opportunities and Limitations to Christian Cultural Transformation
Mr. Charles Clough
Many commentators have noted the loss of American evangelical social concern by 1920. Premillennialism, and more particularly, dispensational premillennialism has been widely blamed for this cultural retreat. Early criticism came from both the older conservatives like Charles Hodge ("[premillennialism] disparages the gospel") and liberals like Social Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch ("[pessimistic belief in supernatural forces of cultural evil] will be confined to narrow circles, mostly of premillennialists"). Of course readers of Biblical Perspectives are aware of the more recent diatribes that blame dispensational premillennialism for everything from televangelist scandals to the federal deficit.
Such a century-old barrage of continuing criticism raises interesting questions. Does dispensationalism have a distinct view of culture and of how Christians are to relate to it? (By "culture" I mean the collective achievement of all institutions of a nation in the arts, sciences, and practical technologies.) If so, did American evangelicalism self-consciously adopt this view in the early twentieth century? Answering the first question is the purpose of this article.
CHRIST AND CULTURE BEFORE DISPENSATIONALISM
Christian cultural views held over the centuries can be divided into five basic positions as H. Richard Niebuhr showed in 1951. After excluding the Roman Catholic and Liberal positions, Bible-believing Protestants seem to be left with three possibilities. First, there is the position often followed by Anabaptists of shunning cultural life altogether because it is hopelessly contaminated by sin ("Christ against culture"). Second, there is the position favored in Lutheran circles of intruding redemptively into the culture only to evangelize and disciple converts while letting God providentially retard the spread of evil through civil government ("Christ and culture in paradox"). And finally, there is the Reformed position of restructuring culture by biblical standards ("Christ the transformer of culture").
By the nineteenth century, however, the most aggressive position, the Reformed, had time to reflect upon two apparently irreversible defeats- the overthrow of Puritanism, first in Restoration England and then in "Unitarianized" New England. Moreover, the sheer size of the cultural problem had mushroomed. Discoveries of thousands of culturally-diverse peoples throughout the continents all without the gospel, growing uneasiness over the seemingly high antiquity of both man and his world, and shock over the cultural cataclysm in France as well as the Civil War in "Christian" America- all these events severely eroded earlier hope of significant cultural dominion. How Christ was to transform surrounding non-Christian culture was becoming less important than the more basic question of how Christians themselves could retain any real sense of thoughtful intimacy with Christ.
RISE OF DISPENSATIONALISM
As they had in past crises of Church history, Christians found themselves again pressed back to the Word of God for authoritative guidance. (How often we sheep move toward our Shepherd only when the wolves attack our flanks!) Early Christological heresies had forced clarification of the Person of Christ. Late Medieval and Renaissance conditions had worked to clarify the Saving Work of Christ. Now the Church had to look more carefully at Scripture in yet another area.
The particular conditions of the 19th and 20th century heightened the age-old contrast between God's transcendence (His unfathomable exaltation over all His creation) and His immanence (His equally mysterious involvement in every detail of His creation). Whenever the creation appears bigger and more complex, our sense of transcendence must enlarge with it. Without Scriptural control, however, transcendence balloons into a remote, "unknowableness" about God. The dilemma of this era has been how to "absorb" the new events and discoveries without loosing a real sense of God's work in the universe throughout all the ages and how His Church fits into it. It seems that He designed the 19th and 20th centuries to drive His people into a deeper understanding of His Sanctifying Work—Christ's mysterious, intimate union with His Body and its relation with the rest of creation.
As it had in previous doctrinal crises, vigorous controversy erupted within Christendom when men sought to grasp the new situation spiritually. Just like the past controversies, the recent one has hinged on both specific Scriptural texts and basic organizing "models" (or "presuppositions" or "preunderstanding"). And, just as it had earlier with faulty Christological models like Monarchianism and Arianism, orthodoxy began to eject sub-and antibiblical syntheses. This time around liberalism and various cults were the rejected heresies.
Liberalism had tried to cope with 19th century by avoiding Scriptural presuppositions and arrived in the 20th century with a Christianity in name only. A whole raft of fundamentalist-like 19th century cults (Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.) did try to use Scripture but did so "from scratch"- arrogantly rejecting previous Spirit-taught orthodoxy- and veered off into bizarre errors.
Reformed theology, on the other hand, remained anchored to historical orthodoxy but has had difficulties trying to relate diverse elements to its one-covenant model. What did the gospel look like in Gentile cultures prior to Israel and in Israel itself? How was it understood by those who heard it? What becomes of the historical testimony to God's faithfulness if Israel's covenants are fulfilled by the Church? What is the significance of the New Testament "mystery" passages (e.g., Rom. 11:25; 16:25; I Cor 15:51; Eph 1:9; 3:3,9; 5:3, etc.)? Are there differences in the cultural roles of Israel and this "mystery" Church?
Since Darby accelerated dispensational development, another organizing model or presupposition has begun to compete with the older one-covenant model. It has arisen from the way dispensationalists view God's transcendence and immanence. Dispensationalists speak of God's transcendence over His manifold works in the heavenlies, on earth, and with Jews, Gentiles, and angels throughout the ages as something "knowable" (in a creature sense, at least). They also describe as a "knowable" His immanence, especially within the Body of Christ in this era. Instead of trying to relate this newly-clarified transcendency and immanency through a single covenant model, dispensationalists use a looser, "network" model that preserves discrete, and sometimes parallel, programs of God (e.g., Israel and the Church). The network has a collective unity among its parts (e.g., all grace through the Cross; redemptive and non-redemptive parts both doxological) but a "looser" one than the older single-covenant model.
Dispensationalism takes great pains in trying to avoid conflicts within this network that would confuse the believer's obedient walk with the Lord (e.g., does He want me to follow Israel's cultural priorities or that of Paul's epistles?). This network tries to encompass all canonically-revealed activities of God throughout earth and heaven. We're not left with Carl Sagan who keeps on insisting upon personal meaning and value in a universe that, in his 20th century view, has neither. The desperate dream of modern science fiction writers since pioneer Arthur Clark (Childhood's End), that homo sapiens' destiny to have any meaning must be linked to other astral creatures, is unnecessary. It's not a dream; it's close to the truth! The Church has a network link to the heavenlies and in some way is already interacting with this higher realm. The dispensational synthesis is orthodoxy's successful response to unique 19th and 20th century challenges.
THE STRUCTURE OF GENERIC DISPENSATIONALISM
How can we see the cultural implications of dispensationalism? For the purposes at hand, I will ignore most of the differences among dispensationalist writers and focus instead on elements common to all, a "generic" dispensationalism. (They're all blamed together for cultural impotency!) My method will be to move from dispensation to dispensation, picking up cultural factors as I go. As discrete economies in God's rule, dispensations lend themselves to this sort of analysis. Dispensations have long been recognized as "experimental domains" that display unique "sets" of rules and policies. We will look at what changes in these rules and policies imply about human culture and Christ's present work.
There are nine ages to look at (I take the Tribulation and the Eternal State as separate ages for purposes of this analysis). I classify them in terms of the presence or absence in each of the finalized New Creation- resurrected man and/or the re-created universe. Those without any part of the New Creation are "mortal"; those with only the New Creation are "immortal"; those with parts of both are "mixed". On this basis we arrive at three classes of dispensations as has been illustrated in the following chart.
|MORTAL AGES||Innocence; Conscience; Human Government; Promise; Law|
|MIXED AGES||Grace; Tribulation; Kingdom|
|IMMORTAL AGE||Eternal State|
ANALYSIS OF THE MORTAL DISPENSATIONS
All five mortal dispensations carry forward features of the original creation mandate to subdue the earth and bring forth culture (Gen 1:26-28). Man is set into a creation hierarchy of "God-angel-man-nature" with a command to explore, name, manage, and populate the earth. In Innocence, as well as after the Fall, man faced evil temptation, learned through special and general revelation, and lived in cultural institutions of family and marriage. The culturally-important uniqueness of Innocence consisted in its "rural" utopianism and lack of sin and death (and, therefore, lack of any need to transform the culture produced).
With the Fall, man was barred from the Tree of Life so he could not be prematurely "immortalized". The following age of Conscience was characterized by a unique geophysical ecosystem that demonstrated the physiological possibility of millennial lifespans. Its testimony vindicates dispensational hermeneutics that take Kingdom prophecies of similar high ages (Isa 65:20) at face value. No metaphorical transfer of Kingdom prophecies to the New Creation and Eternal State are required.
The dispensation of Human Government with its exponentially-decaying longevity in the days of the human race's dispersion from Ararat provides an ample framework for cultural interpretation of "primitive" peoples. The most significant cultural feature of this dispensation is the origin of civil government- God's delegation of some judgment functions, including capital punishment, to human society (note in Psa 82 how rulers are called "gods"). Writes Dr. Pilkey:
The Sumerian king list attests to this same fact, claiming that "kingship descended from heaven" after the Flood. This descent of power was far more like the Christian Pentecost than we imagine. Its universal gentile symbol was the "Ka" sign, the pictographic image of a man with arms upraised at the elbows.
Each tribe of mankind has its own prophetically-outlined pathways as Moses and Paul noted (Gen 10-11; Acts 17:26-27).
With the next age, the dispensation of Promise, we have the biblical "covenant of redemption" made with Abraham. Gentiles and Jews are separated and the oracles of God henceforth are limited to Israel (Rom 3:2). A missionary, horizontal transfer of special revelation is now required across cultural boundaries.
The last purely mortal age is the dispensation of the Law. Here we see a historical "counter-culture" ruled by God in a special way unlike His general indirect providential rule over other nations. Pagan nations were immediately ruled by other "gods" (Deut 4:19; I Sam 26:19; Dan 10:13; cf. Matt 4:8-9); but Israel was qualitatively different. A direct cause-effect relationship between obedience to Him and physical blessing occurred. McClain notes:
What is ordinarily called misfortune and calamity could come to Israel in the days of the historical kingdom only as a direct judgment of God for rebellion against Him. . . .Now this is quite an astonishing thing, utterly unknown in the experience of ordinary nations in history, and it has not received the attention it deserves.
This age ended in Israel's discipline with the transfer of kingdom power to the Gentiles (Dan 2). Gentile hegemony continued over the Jews after they rejected the King of the Kingdom.
Conclusions About Mortal Culture
First, the corollary of mortality is the existence of temptation to evil and the possibility of repentance. Mortal culture, therefore, can never be a true utopia; its upward transformation is never irreversible. It can't escape Solomon's devastating critique in Ecclesiastes. Mortal man remains under the background working of the principalities and powers of heaven, both good and evil.
A second feature of mortal culture is the existence of a general, though often terribly suppressed, God-consciousness. All cultures, therefore, as they have been since the age of Conscience are accountable for formulating righteous laws whether or not they have contact with Jewish-mediated special revelation (cf. Rom 1:16-2:16). Culver points out:
Though not holding pagan nations responsible to Mosaic Law, when addressing the neighboring nations and their rulers, the prophets assume that all these peoples know and accept certain valid concepts of right and wrong.
Mortal culture, then, always possesses some valid ethical awareness.
A third useful implication of dispensationalism for culture is that civil government, though absolutely necessary, is not per se an instrument of redemption. Utopian dreams based upon anarchism (e.g., Rousseau, Marx) are vain myths that recapitulate the failure of the age of Conscience. It's also true that utopian myths based upon totalitarian government recapitulate the failure of the age of Law. The age of Law demonstrated how dependent culture is upon ideal leaders and ideal citizens. Corrupt kings of the Davidic dynasty accentuated the need for an Ideal King. Corrupt society exposed the need for a citizenry with the law "in their hearts." Redemption must occur to people first before government can work properly even with a highly just law-code.
ANALYSIS OF THE IMMORTAL CULTURAL FINALE
The only purely immortal culture is that of the New Jerusalem in the Eternal State. With the re-creation of the heavens and earth, the hierarchy becomes "God-man-angel-nature." Now man reigns above angels (I Cor 6:3; 15:24; Eph 1:10; Heb 2:14; 4:14, etc.). Threat of ethical defeat has passed away from the righteous (Rom 6:9; Rev. 21:4; 22:3) as well as opportunity for repentance and salvation from the unrighteous (Matt 25:41; Luke 16:26; Rev 22:11). Man is now "immortalized" so that righteousness and unrighteousness have become "fixed". An "urban" civilization with an implied dense population replaces the old "rural" under-populated Garden of Eden. Physical illumination limited to only daylight hours is replaced with a constant theoophanic radiance (Rev. 21:23-25; 22:5).
Conclusions About Immortal Culture
There is an obvious continuity of form between the mortal creation and the New. The New Creation has matter and spirit. Jesus' resurrection body had flesh and bones as Dr. Luke records (Luke 24:39). Food can be eaten (Luke 24:43). Racial and cultural distinctions persist (21:24; 22:2). There are a New Heavens and a New Earth (Rev 21:1), which, if names mean anything, bare a resemblance to our planet and physical universe. Even botanical and zoological forms such as trees and animal-like angels are spoken of in Revelation. The familiar forms of mortal creation, therefore, are not accidental, evolutionary by-products; they are structures rooted in God's eternal plan!
The discontinuity between the mortal creation and the Eternal State, however, absolutely separates the two cultures of each. With the complete removal of evil, with a completed personal judgment resulting in a true self-evaluation before God (I Cor 3:12-15; Rev. 2:17), there is unhindered intimacy with the Lamb and the Father. With the damage from evil gone from each person, "defense mechanisms" are no longer needed. Cultural life in a densely populated area can at last be peaceful and enjoyable. The true potential of collective Adam can now be realized. The institutions of marriage, and presumably, family disappear (Matt. 22:30) because blood ties that had been necessary in mortality to produce all men seminally from Adam are no longer needed. The population is fixed.
A most important feature of immortal culture is the shift in priority of concern from that of mortal life. No one I know has put it so well as Dr. Pilkey:
As mortals, we remain in various kinds of trouble; and salvation strikes us as an all-consuming, universal concern. Yet the angels of heaven have never been saved; the demons cannot be saved; and the redeemed in heaven have nothing from which to be saved. If life in the resurrected state has a purpose, goals must exist beyond salvation. . . .Mortals have spirits; but mortality, in the spirit, is a flickering flame. The new nature of the resurrection body will consolidate and fix motives through an eternal stamina essential to explain both the worship of the redeemed and the condition of the lost in hell.
Dispensationalism's presupposition and unifying emphasis, therefore, goes beyond the older Reformed single-redemptive-covenant idea that concerned itself solely with mortal salvific issues. Inclusion of immortal doxological issues requires a higher level of unity.
ANALYSIS OF THE MIXED DISPENSATIONS
Each of the three mixed dispensations is characterized by the actual co-existence of mortality and immortality. Both of the two hierarchies ("God-angels-man-nature" and "God-man-angels-nature") are in force. This mixed element is what causes such difficulty, for example, in trying to understand our present Church age of Grace within the older Reformed model.
First, let's look at the Kingdom age (the Millennium). Its mortal component includes the (renovated) earth with an ecosystem similar to that of the antediluvian age of Conscience. The administrative distinction between mortal Jews and Gentiles resembles that of the Old Testament: mankind's central religious cultus re-established on Mt. Zion, and the Messianic King ruling over all nations with absolute authority ("rod of iron"). All demonic energization of the flesh will cease with their incarceration (Rev 20:1-3). Yet true to mortality's central feature, this Kingdom is not fixed; it ends in rebellion (Rev 20:7-9). The Kingdom's immortal component consists of Christ and all co-ruling resurrected saints as well as the New Jerusalem (apparently not yet on earth). At last civil government is run by immortal incumbents who cannot be corrupted.
Next, let's back up in time to the period of the Tribulation that leads into the Kingdom age. Mortal life in the Tribulation will be an unprecedented time of global trouble. Besides angelic-mediated, geophysical catastrophes (that apparently prepare the planet for the Kingdom renovation), mortal culture will experience great spiritual deception (Matt 24). The mysterious Man of Sin attempts a cultural revolution unfettered by the Church age "restrainer" (II Thess 2:7-9). Jews are separated from the Gentiles and prepared, as mankind's priestly nation, to end the Tribulation by imploring the Messiah's return to the planet (Matt 23:39; Rom 11:12,25-26). The immortal component of the Tribulation remains in heaven as Christ judges the Church (preparing the Church to rule with Christ in the Kingdom).
Now we come to the mixed dispensation of Grace, the Church age. The mortal component seems much like that of the purely mortal dispensations: presence of trials, social institutions, civil government, and God-conscious among all men. Israel continues in a "suppressed" mode under the hegemony of the Gentiles (present-day Israel came into existence by UN mandate). The major uniqueness is that special revelation now addresses Jews and Gentiles as equals, ignoring Law-age partitioning (Acts 15; 17:30-31; Rom 1:16; Eph 2). The immortal component is the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ Who is the direct Object of all special revelation communicated in this age. For the first time in history a man stands perfect in the presence of God, and we have the hierarchy "God-man-angel-nature". Moreover, the Holy Spirit through His Baptizing work somehow links believers with this immortal man, providing power over the sin-dominated flesh(Rom 6-8). Angels are learning doxological lessons (Eph 3:10).
CHRIST AND CULTURE IN DISPENSATIONALISM
What, then, is the dispensational view of culture? Which of Niebuhr's positions apply? Because dispensationalism's model is more like a network than a single covenant, the question has to be rephrased in two sub-questions: (1) what is the destiny of culture over the ages? and (2) what are the prospects for cultural transformation in the Church age?
Christ and Culture For All Time
Viewed overall, culture is obviously a redemptive target. Niebuhr's "Christ against culture" view doesn't fit dispensationalism. Ages like Law and Kingdom clearly are restructured from prior paganism by biblical standards. Yet as cultures erected upon mortality, the transformations are not irreversibly permanent. They depend upon a continuing presence of leaders and people who are well-sanctified (as the Puritans failed to remember). Permanent transformation must await the permanent presence of perfect people in the Eternal State. Nevertheless, culture is obviously not left unaltered by God's plan of the ages. Dispensationalism continues the Reformed view of "Christ as transformer of culture" but with two qualifying principles.
The "Mandate Carry-over" Principle
We learned in our analysis of the Eternal State that many familiar forms of mortal creation continue into immortality. The original mandate to subdue the earth given to the first Adam continues and is expanded with the second Adam to include "all things" (cf. Gen 1:26-28; I Cor 15:24-28; Heb 2:6-9). Though each dispensation begins with a discontinuity in God's policies, it takes over the cultural heritage of the one before. Israel used pre-Israelite literary motifs, pottery, etc. Undoubtedly, Bach's music, for example, will be known in the Kingdom. It therefore follows that when we produce cultural achievements of true value, they join in the original mandate fruit for the future ages, ultimately carrying over into the Eternal State where they will be properly appreciated.
The "Indirect Strategy" Principle
Christ does not transform by a naive, direct strategy. His armies do not always march forward after the manner of arm-chair strategists. The Scriptures contain numerous evidences of highly sophisticated deception and apparent retreat which, in the end, produce surprising victory (e.g., holy war strategy from Moses to David, the crucifixion strategy noted in I Cor 2:7-8). The clear superiority in warfare of indirect strategy has been known to military science for years. After surveying every major conflict for the past 2500 years, the famous British strategist, B. H. Liddell Hart wrote:
Effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent's unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological. In strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.
Dispensationalism's network of interwoven distinct activities of God with Gentiles, Jews, the Church, and angels provides reason enough for the indirect strategy that at times seems "impotent".
Christ and Culture For This Time
With ultimate cultural transformation assured, how does dispensationalism see cultural transformation in the present age of Grace? Here are the implications I see:
- As a mixed dispensation, the Church on earth lives out "normal" mortality. Christians follow the familiar pattern of learning obedience in humility seen so often in the saints (e.g., Job, David) and in the Lord Himself ("Cross before the Crown") (cf. Rom 8:18ff; II Cor 4:7-12; Phil 3:10). For those who recognize it, this pattern is part of the same clever indirect strategy that undid Satan at the Cross. For those who don't see, it's "cultural impotence". Dispensationalists think this pattern is critically related to our future role in the Kingdom as well as to God's other (non-redemptive, doxological) work in the spirit world (cf. Job 1-2; I Cor 2:8; Eph 3:10).
- The Church also has a link to immortality through spiritual union with the resurrected Christ. Her victory against evil is thus assured as Paul argues in Romans 6-8. Her knowledge of God in Christ has arrived at a "final" stage (post-Christian religions are reversals, not advances) (John 17:3). The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes Her partake in some sense of the coming New Jerusalem (Heb 12:22; cf. Phil 3:20). Nothing stands between her and the Rapture. (This immediate intimacy with the resurrected Christ is what precipitates talk of "realized eschatology" and "the presence of the Kingdom".)
- Transformation of present mortal culture by the Church has upper and lower limits. That she always has some transforming effect is implied by the Restrainer in II Thess 2:7. The Man of Sin cannot take over while the Church remains. Severe persecution and defeat may come locally, but it will never be global. There will always be room to migrate and regroup for another day as Paul did in Thessalonica. There is no excuse for lack of some cultural effects other than deception and laziness. Dispensationalism thus protects premillennialism from undue pessimism by the pretribulational rapture. On the other hand, the Church cannot transform mortal culture into true millennial conditions because of geophysical and spiritual background constraints on mortal culture in this age. The demonic powers must be suddenly deposed, and the entire ecosystem catastrophically renovated- both beyond mortal man's capacity. Dispensationalism thus protects the Church from all versions of utopianism from "prosperity gospels" to "triumphalism."
- What transformation that does occur, results directly from the lives of sanctified believers. No missions, no evangelism, no discipleship- no transformation. After these basic actions occur, then the strong believers can seek to restructure the culture around them according to wisdom from the whole canon of Scripture. In most instances they will have to appeal pragmatically to the unbelieving culture around them as Daniel did ("my method works better than yours"; cf. Dan 1:3-16).
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate, in a way that is logically consistent with the theology of dispensationalism, that a dispensational view of Christ and culture can be developed. A dispensational view of culture is one that should recognize the Lordship of Christ over all creatures while encompassing every area of life. It is derived directly from the scriptures without a need for synthesizing help from nonchristian thought. However, a dispensational view of culture knows and works within the limitations of God's plan for history and is sensitive to the timing of His progressive unfolding. A dispensational view of culture does provide for cultural impact, mainly through indirect means as individuals develop and display the character of Christ. Finally, a dispensational view of culture believes in victory inside history, but not in the present church age. While limited progress is currently possible, final victory awaits Christ's return, the resurrection, and His curse reversing decree.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891):III,864.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Company,1922):86f
 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers,1951).
 See the brief synopsis of dispensational history by the Biblical Perspectives editor in Dispensational Distinctives, Vol. I., Nos. 1, 2, 3 (Jan-Jun 1991).
 T he striking mathematical character of the Genesis 11 longevity decline is potent evidence for its literal factuality and for a catastrophic, sudden change from one ecosystem to another. Supposedly similar Ancient Near Eastern texts carry no such trait.
 One example of a radical dispensational reconstruction of postdiluvian history is John Pilkey, Origin of the Nations (San Diego: Master Books, 1984).
 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959):88
 Robert D. Culver, Toward A Biblical View of Civil Government (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974):86. Dr. Culver also notes that even the Mosaic Law is not a complete code and was supplemented by previous common-law wisdom (116-125). Without endorsing all his identifications, we can learn much from the startling evidences of surviving primitive monotheism narrated by Don Richardson in Eternity In Their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1981).
 In spite of the contrary assertion of ex-dispensationalist Bruce K. Waltke in "Theonomy in Relation to Dispensational and Covenant Theologies," Theonomy: A Reformed Critique ed. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990):61-62, 66.
 Years ago this neglected point was made by Dr. McClain:531.
 B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (2nd ed.; New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967):25.
 This has been set forward very well in R.B. Thieme, Jr., The Divine Outline of History (Houston: R.B. Thieme, Jr. Bible Ministries, 1989).