The Decline of Christianity in Scotland (and Wales)

emptychurchAn article by Andy Hunter (Scotland Director of FIEC) in July’s Evangelicals Now seeks to explain the ‘spectacular spiritual decline’ in Scotland. The piece (an expanded piece can be found on Hunter’s blog) sets out several reasons why the decline in Christianity north of the Boarder seems to have been greater than that seen in England. Some of the reasons Hunter gives seem to make a lot of sense, such as the higher levels of immigration to England from Christian countries (particularly seen in London), or the infamous factionalism within Scottish Presbyterianism, which has undoubtedly turned many people from the Church.

Other reasons seem more tenuous, particularly Hunter’s quite striking claim that a greater proportion of Independent churches in England has slowed decline south of the Border.

One thing to be clear on from the start is that the measure that Andy Hunter is dealing with is self-declared religious affiliation (from the 2015 British Election Survey (BES)). That means that we’re not measuring faith, or church attendance, but something which is a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national consciousness or psyche. Or perhaps a measure of how many people identify, however broadly or culturally, with the label of ‘Christian’.

The BES data show that across Britain as a whole, 48% of the population self-identifies as belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Taking the major traditions, by far the largest constituency is Anglicanism (31.1% of the population), followed by Roman Catholicism (9.1%), Presbyterianism (3.7%) and Methodism (2.5%). All other Christian traditions together account for 1.4%. All other religions apart from  Christianity account for 7.4%. Of course, the proportion self-identifying as having no religious affiliation is large, at 45%. All of the above, perhaps surprisingly, means that in terms of religious affiliation, the largest constituency of the British population identify itself as Christian.

When you look at the declared religious affiliations since 1963, the greatest decline across 52 years is seen in ‘Other Christian’ traditions (from 23.1% to 7.6%), rather than in Anglicanism (64.5% to 31.1%) or Roman Catholicism (an increase from 8.6% to 9.1%). The ‘Other Christian’ category is too aggregate to be useful, but includes Independents amongst other groupings. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stand at the other end of the spectrum to Independents in terms of their structures, being large, highly-structured denominations. This is significant for judging Hunter’s argument about Independents.

The incredibly striking and sobering statistic is the rise in those declaring no religious affiliation between 1963 and 2015 (3.2% to 44.7%). In terms of a social shift, that is truly astonishing. And I would venture that when you put that alongside statistics from other European nations you would feel, if you are a UK church leader, even more sober.

When it comes to Scotland, there is clearly a higher level of non-affiliation to any religion (50.6% compared to 43.7% in England), and this is what Andy Hunter picks up on. It’s actually worse in Wales, where 51.8% declare religious non-affiliation.

The idea that Independent churches would help to maintain Christianity in the national psyche doesn’t quite ring true to me. Independency is strong in Wales, and this is the country with the highest non-affiliation. The fact that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have suffered less of a decline in self-identification than other traditions proves difficult for the assertion made by Andy Hunter that ‘larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time.’ I would argue, conversely that these denominations have a much greater cultural and political impact than do Independents.

The data suggest that it is the largest institutions that have been more effective at maintaining a societal connection. I would argue that one of the factors (amongst many) that has precipitated such a decline in Christian affiliation (remembering that it’s a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national psyche) in Wales particularly is the fragmentation of the large denominations. In Wales, many evangelical congregations left the denominations during the latter half of last century. As a consequence of this, many of these have lost their former place in the consciousness of their communities, and have struggled to build bridges with communities that no longer understand who they are, or even know that they exist. These congregations have certainly had no effective place or voice in national discourse or the nation’s cultural life. Three or four decades on, many have stagnated and declined. That, I would argue, has been a significant factor in the decline in religious affiliation in Wales.

Andy Hunter is undoubtedly right to say that the fragmentation in Presbyterianism in Scotland has damaged the church’s witness. I can’t and won’t argue with that. Plenty before me have pointed out the shame of it. However, it’s easier to point out division in large bodies. Fragmentation also happens in Independent congregations, with schisms and splits, but this goes largely unnoticed in society. I really don’t think that, in general, Independent churches contribute significantly to the place of Christianity in the national psyche – national churches can do that far more effectively. Andy Hunter works for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches – and that body undoubtedly gives a stronger voice to Independents. I’m a Presbyterian. So we’re going to see things differently. However, the data we have in the BES seem to support my point.

If we’re looking for reasons for decline, there something else I’d throw into the mix (and it undoubtedly is a mix). It’s something that has contributed to the disconnection between churches and their communities, and also between churches and cultural and political discourse. It’s an important theological aspect that goes right to the heart of Evangelicalism. British Evangelicalism was influenced from the beginning by European Pietism. This theology, which ensconced itself within Puritanism, Methodism and the thinking of the Evangelical Awakening, was dualistic and proposed a clear separation between this world and a spiritual salvation in heaven. Its outlook tended to disparage culture, denigrate humanity and the physical, including the body, the arts and large parts of human experience. It led to widespread cultural and political disengagement in the church. Pietistic Christianity, as George Caird observed, does not connect to human beings who recognise much goodness in God’s creation. More importantly, it’s not biblical.

The influence of Pietism is, I believe, a significant factor in the astonishing decline of Christianity in Scotland, and for that matter in Wales, my home country. I’m no sociologist. I’m not a church historian. But it strikes me that both Scotland and Wales, in terms of their Christian traditions, have been disproportionately affected by Pietism. It is a deficient theology, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Its negative outlook on physical life and  human experience has contributed to the caricatures of Highland Calvinism and of Presbyterian preachers that still do the rounds today in Scotland and in Wales. I was reminded of this kind of thing just last week. On BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece on Dumfries Academy’s 1877 hosting of then pupil JM Barry’s play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’. The reaction (in a letter to the governors) of a local minister , Rev D.L. Scott, was reported:

‘We have turned the classroom into a theatre for the exhibition of a grossly immoral play…I say that such exhibitions are a disgrace…Are they [those attending] the pious? Are they the prayerful or the godly? No, we find that theatre-goers are the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy and, aye, even sometimes the great many were nothing better than the off-scourings and scum of society’.

Such views might be from over 100 years ago, but this kind of Pietism has been alive and kicking in the church over the last century, and is still represented in the church today. Maybe not in such stark terms, but it’s there. You see it in churches isolated from their communities and national discourse. You see it in almost-Gnostic presentations of a Gospel of escape from the world. The decline of Christianity in the national psyches of both Scotland and Wales can be, at least in part, attributed to it.

I want to, like Hunter, end with reasons to be hopeful (Andy Hunter is to be commended for that). The Reformed tradition of Calvin and especially of Dutch theologians like Bavinck, Kuyper and Rookmaaker, points us to a robust creation theology, a robust theology of life, a grand vision of living the whole of life to the glory of God, and of redeeming culture for Jesus Christ. It’s a tradition that reflects a Gospel not of escape from the world, but of redemption for the world. That’s the Gospel of the scriptures. Our Reformed tradition also has a robust theology of the church and its place in national life. Within the Free Church of Scotland, this strand of the Reformed tradition is increasingly influential and I believe that, if we embrace it, it will produce a dynamic, contemporary, missional and engaged Reformed Church. And that’s why I believe that a renewal of Presbyterianism offers the best hope for renewing the place of the Scottish Church in the national psyche. For the glory of God in Jesus Christ.

In The Crucible

salemLast night I saw an excellent performance of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, by pupils at Lochaber High School. Miller wrote The Crucible as a satire on post-war McCarthyism, but its setting is the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th Century, and the infamous witch trials there. Miller’s portrayal of the events at Salem is largely historical, and through the play he draws powerful parallels between the hysteria, authoritarianism and persecution of the Puritan communities of New England and of the McCarthy era.

What particularly struck me last night was the The Crucible’s portrayal of Pietism. Pietism is that version of Christian faith which, like Gnosticism, denigrates the physical world. Pietism proposes a radical separation of God’s work of creation and God’s work of salvation. The created world is perceived as a ‘grim vale of soul-making’ (George Caird’s characterisation), a temporary theatre constructed so that the play of human salvation can run its course. Human culture and the enjoyment of life are denigrated by Pietism, and are ultimately meaningless. Death is to be embraced, life endured.

Whatever benefits came from Puritan theology, Puritanism had Pietism at its heart. Miller portrays a Puritan community consumed by superstition, and a clergy consumed with material gain and pride. In Salem, the arts, literature, and human enjoyment in general are frowned upon. Giles Corey suspects his wife of witchery because she is reading books. That children should be dancing is a cause for dismay. Goody Proctor confesses her coldness to her husband, a coldness emblematic of the denigration of human love within Pietism. A Christianity which finds no place for the positive theology of creation found in the scriptures of the Bible lays itself open to the superstition and hysteria which erupted in Salem and elsewhere. When Christianity has little connection to God’s work in nature, Christians begin to live in an enchanted world, where everyday illnesses and misfortunes are attributed to evil spirits, and where the devil, rather than human sin, is behind every injustice. This is a Christianity where an extreme dualism values the spiritual world as the ‘real’ world, and the physical world as inconsequential. Where such views prevail, Christians find it easier to live dualistic lives. Their ‘godly’ spiritual exercises sit alongside actions which are compromised by greed, jealousy or hatred. A theological disconnect between the spiritual and the physical leads to lives which are dualistic and untransformed. In Miller’s Salem, ‘covenanted, Gospel Christians’ talk in pious terms, yet angle to acquire others’ land. Rev Parris most clearly exhibits this hypocrisy, using threats of hell-fire to cow-tow his parishioners whilst seeking more pay, and golden candlesticks at his elbows.

The Crucible can make for uncomfortable viewing for some Christians, portraying as it does the hypocrisy and superstition that can flourish within Christianity. But I enjoy The Crucible as a Christian, not only because it’s a great play, but because the kind of Christianity encountered in The Crucible deserves critique. Its portrayal of Pietism (although focussing on its extreme consequences) is not just of historical interest, since Pietism is alive and well within evangelical Christianity. Within the Church we continue to be burdened by its presence, because Pietism is incapable of carrying God’s truth effectively into God’s world. It holds Christians back in terms of their growth and discipleship, stretching them in an unbiblical tension of guilt and superstition, suspended between heaven and earth.

In The Crucible, Rev Hale speaks to Goody Proctor in the face of the latest hangings, ‘Life is God’s most precious gift’. True Christianity understands God as the God of life, and understands that human life is to be lived and to be valued, along with the beauty and meaning of human art and literature. True Christianity banishes asceticism, and understands that God intends to redeem this creation, and that through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s people are destined for resurrection. We are called to witness to the goodness of God in creation, and to proclaim that Jesus Christ came into the world to bring ‘life in all its fullness’.

Living on the Next to Last Word

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the early hours this morning, unable to sleep, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What I read didn’t help me sleep! It was one of those moments when you read something that seems to connect at so many levels with your own recent meditations.

It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law and one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them. I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly… You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last. We live on the next to last word, and  believe on the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called) and pietists would be shocked at such an idea, but it is true all the same. Letters to a Friend, Advent II

There is so much to reflect on here, being at once a word about Christian hope, truth and experience, and a word about hermeneutics – how to read and understand the Bible. Bonhoeffer’s words speak into evangelicalism’s tendency towards Christomonism. He points to the God who has spoken words before the last word: words of creation, of blessing, of promise, of judgement, of hope. The last word can only be understood in the light of these words. It is an irony of today’s church that a zeal to see the Messiah everywhere in the Bible leads to a certain blindness to who the Messiah truly is.

I was particularly struck by these words: ‘It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world’! That statement is to me like a banner high in the wind! A love like that arises from a true vision of, and love for, Jesus the Messiah! Bonhoeffer is correct that the pietist does not understand this. And that is why so many Christians baulk at the idea of loving life and loving the earth in this way. Bonhoeffer’s words express the true hope of God’s word, and are a call to the grand vision of Reformed Christianity.

Our Musty Christian Incubators

ThielickeLast night, I was reading a chapter of Helmut Thielicke’s How the World Began, entitled ‘Man – The Risk of God’. Sometimes, when you’ve been turning over thoughts in your mind and reflecting on them in prayer, you pick up a book and read something that just hits you like a train – because it puts your own reflections into words. The issues raised in this chapter are, in my view, pressing ones for the Reformed church. Thielicke’s words (from the 1960’s) have the ring of the prophetic…

We Christians, therefore, have not only to sing hymns; we must also pay attention to culture. God wants this too. But we cannot pay attention to culture if we are narrow-minded, stupid Christian philistines. Then we hand over the theater, music, literature, and politics to the so-called children of the world, and our somewhat belated agitation and concern that they may play hob with it, that they may make a cult of Eros or an atomic witches’ sabbath of it, is completely out of place. “Is the plot of history to turn out in such a way,” asked Schleiermacher in another connection, “that Christianity will go with barbarism, but science— and art—with unbelief?”

I believe that the church of Jesus Christ has not yet really grasped just what has been entrusted to us and the wealth that has been given to us. Often it seems to me that we Christians flounder about between heaven and earth, as if, down underneath, we had lost both, and therefore present a rather lamentable figure to the children of this world. We keep thinking about all the things “we can no longer do” as Christians, instead of enjoying the riches of creation and then accepting with open hands what God wants to give to us. Is God, then, a mistrustful miser who locks everything away from us so that we cannot get at it? Is he not rather the Father who is always giving with full hands and unparalleled generosity, always pouring out his gifts? I am afraid that the germs of a neopagan culture are being cultivated in our musty Christian incubators.   How the World Began, 68

Thielicke puts his finger on it. A truly Reformed theology does not (or should not) ‘flounder around between heaven and earth’. I’m afraid that Christianity often does present a lamentable figure. We denigrate our creatureliness, as if God wanted us in heaven rather than on the earth. And then our anaemic gospel becomes a shadow of what it ought to be, and makes little sense to those who live as creatures in God’s much-loved world. Our musty Christian incubators need to be opened to the fresh air of God’s purpose to redeem all of His creation through Jesus the Messiah.

Addressing Pietism and ‘The Thing’

calvinA busy few weeks attending the British New Testament Conference and researching at Tyndale House has kept me away from World Without End. But, my mind has been turning over the things that I’ve posted on previously: the influence of pietistic dualism (the strict separation of natural and supernatural) in the Church. Whilst away I had a stimulating conversation about the influence of Pietism in Welsh evangelicalism. Just yesterday, I read an interview with the first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church – a Pope who celebrates the particular mysticism of the Society of Jesus. Closer to home, there is the mystical dualism of the traditional local Catholicism and the evident strong strain of pietistic mysticism (with its attendant dualism) in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially in the Highlands and Islands. In a previous post, I noted Bavinck’s view that this kind of pietism was incapable of the Reformation of the church. The Reformation project at its very heart sought to fundamentally connect the natural and supernatural.

Conventionally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is seen exclusively as a reformation of the church. In fact, however, it was much more than that; it was a radically new way of conceiving Christianity itself. Rome’s world-and-life view was dualistic; her disjunction between the natural and supernatural was a quantitative one. By returning to the New Testament, the Reformers replaced this with a truly theistic worldview that made the distinction a qualitative one. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, 235.

The Reformers’ healthy, biblical view of Christianity (a ‘Worldly Christianity’) was rooted in the place they afforded to the doctrine of creation. It was good ol’ Jean Calvin who took this furthest…

In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements Creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves Creation intact, as in Luther, much less a radically new creation as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures. Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity. 238

But, this great principle of the Reformation – of the goodness of creation, of God’s purpose to affirm and renew all things in Christ – did not take root. By the time of the Westminster Confession, this aspect of Reformation thought is waning. In Bavinck’s words, ‘the Reformation retreated into itself’. The dualistic outlook remained.

I’ve become convinced that it is Pietism that is at the root of some of the common problems found in traditional Highland Presbyterianism. Congregations which have retreated from the world, which are unable to either mobilise or contextualise their mission, which show little concern for social justice, and which have a negative view of language and culture – these congregations can be identified, but why are they like this? They have ‘the thing’, that intangible, nebulous affliction discerned through its symptoms. To my mind, ‘the thing’ is rooted in Pietism and must be addressed by a truly Reformed, Worldly Christianity. Mere ‘Evangelicalism’ cannot be the answer, because Pietism is alive and well in that school of thought as well. If we want a focus for the on-going task of Reformation in Scotland, then the all-embracing, most-wholeheartedly biblical, creation-affirming principles of Calvin’s Reformed thought are what we must grasp and apply.

The Roots of Pietistic Dualism

monasteryIn The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, Bavinck traces the influence of that dualistic view of the world which is at the heart of pietistic Christianity and finds its roots in the early church:

It is not to be denied that the vision of the world held by the first Christians was, in general, extremely dark. The apologists saw a work of the devil in pagan culture. Not only the theater but also pagan science, philosophy, and art were strongly condemned by many. Wealth, luxury, and earthly goods were regarded with suspicion. Marriage was not condemned, but a celibate life was still prized more highly. A certain tendency toward asceticism arose rather quickly. The hallmark of a true Christian was a contempt for the world and for death. The second and third centuries are filled with dualism and asceticism. 228

From this view, according to Bavinck, comes the mediaeval conception of the kingdom of God, the work of Christ and of the Spirit. This was the view of the church that the Reformers came out from. Bavinck acknowledges that there are differences between the mediaeval view and that of Roman Catholicism in his day. This will be even more the case today, post-Vatican II, but Bavinck’s description of the Roman Catholic view of grace is still broadly valid:

It does not reform and renew that which exists, it only completes and perfects Creation. Christianity is that which transcends and approaches the natural, but it does not penetrate it and sanctify it. With this, Rome, that considers itself to be truly catholic, changes the character of New Testament catholicity…The catholicity of the Christian principle that purifies and sanctifies everything is exchanged for a dualism that separates the supernatural from the natural by considering it as transcendent above the natural. 229

It is not difficult from this to see how it became necessary for Rome to set itself over against culture, the state, society, science, and art. According to Rome, Christianity is exclusively church. Everything depends on this. Outside the church is the sphere of the unholy. The goal had to be to bring about the church’s hegemony over everything…. Thus, while the natural order is in itself good, it is of a lower order…worldly art is good but ecclesiastical art is better. Marriage is not rejected, but celibacy is the ultimate Christian ideal. Possessions are legitimate, but poverty is meritorious. Practicing an earthly vocation is not a sin, but the contemplative life of the monk has a greater excellence and worth. 230

This outlook, present in mediaeval Christianity and challenged by the Reformers, re-emerged in similar (but not identical) form in Protestant evangelicalism.

Humility, Perspective and Balance


Without a doubt, there is a glorious truth to be found in Pietism and all the religious movements akin to it. Jesus himself indeed calls us to the one thing that is necessary, namely, that we seek the kingdom of heaven above all and set aside concerns about everything else because our heavenly Father knows what we need. The life of communion with God has its own content and is not exhausted in our moral life or in the exercise of our earthly vocation.

The mystical life has its own legitimacy alongside activity; the busyness of work makes rest necessary; Sunday, though situated at the beginning of the work days, does remain next to them. In this dispensation we will never achieve the full harmony and unity that we expect in the future. Some onesideness will remain in us as persons and churches. None of us has our intellect, emotions and will, our head, heart and hand, equally governed by the Gospel.

However, in order to prevent the “spiritual” (godsdienstige), side of Christianity — that which in the good sense of the term can be called the “ascetic” side — from degenerating into an improper mysticism and monastic spirituality, it needs to be supplemented by the moral (zedelijke) — the truly human side.

Faith appears to be great, indeed, when a person renounces all and shuts himself up in isolation. But even greater, it seems to me, is the faith of the person who, while keeping the kingdom of heaven as a treasure, at the same time brings it out into the world as a leaven, certain that He who is for us is greater than he who is against us and that He is able to preserve us from evil even in the midst of the world.

— Herman Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church

Pietism: Missing the Full Truth

One of the most fascinating themes in Herman Bavinck’s The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church is his conviction that a dualistic view of the world (as found in pietism) is an enemy of the catholicity of Christianity. It’s far from a mute point. Evangelicalism grew in the soil of pietism and continues, to a greater or lesser extent, in that vein today. I’ve already posted on Rookmaaker’s brief description and critique of pietism in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, where he labels it ‘mysticism’.

Bavinck’s own assessment is that pietism

sin(s) against the catholicity of Christianity and the church and (is) thus incapable of the Reformation to which we are called today. 244

Bavinck has no desire to overstate the case in a critique of pietistic Christianity:

It is not our intention here to deny the gift that God gave to the church in times of decline through such men as Fox and Wesley, Spener and Francke, Von Zinzendorf and Labadie, Darby and Irving, Moody and Booth. And who would deny the rich blessing that often rested on their work? Their passion, courage, faith, and love were admirable. Their protest against the worldliness and corruption of the church was not without foundation. Often they were seized by a holy passion for the honor of God and the salvation of people or else, withdrawing to a life of solitude, they excelled in many Christian virtues… 245-6

He does however, highlights its weaknesses:

Nonetheless, there is something lacking in their Christianity. It immediately makes a different impression on us than the truly Christian and also thoroughly healthy worldview of the Reformers. One misses the genuine catholicity of the Christian faith in them…. 246

It needs to be noted that while this orientation has much about it that is Christian, it is missing the full truth of Christianity. It is a denial of the truth that God loves the world. It is dedicated to conflict with and even rejection of the world but not to “the victory that overcomes it” in faith. 246-7

In a Reformed and Reforming church, we must pursue the ‘full truth of Christianity’ – that God loves the world.

The Church, Our Culture and Our Children

sleepofreasonMy last post was a brief reflection on one aspect of Puritanism’s influence on the Reformed tradition. Rookmaker argues that the mysticism imported from the Anabaptists via Puritanism is the reason for the almost total lack of appreciation for the arts in the Reformed tradition (in contrast to Roman Catholicism, for example). This mystic influence ‘held that the arts were in themselves worldly, unholy and that a Christian should never participate in them.’

A lack of appreciation for the arts is a significant problem, and the fact that many in the Reformed tradition probably would disagree just validates the point. In some strands of Scottish Presbyterianism, the expectation that a Christian would give up musical instruments or ceilidhs, or might only read ‘spiritual’ books is not that far in the past. There are also still many who, for ‘spiritual’ reasons, have little time for the Gaelic language. The Church, our culture and the people themselves have been left all the poorer for this kind of dualistic view.

But the effects of mystic dualism can be seen in many more areas of life within the Church, especially those of an evangelical persuasion. For example, spiritual guidance is a key concern in evangelicalism and is often understood in spiritualised terms where the balance falls heavily on God’s intervention rather than on the nitty-gritty of human decisions. While waiting for God to intervene, opportunities to resolve a situation, or to find direction and progress, go begging. Similarly, when it comes to mission, mysticism often leads to the irony of people praying fervently for revival whilst totally neglecting engagement with the communities and culture around them.

But for all of the above, I think the most urgent reason to address this mystical outlook in the Church is our own children. Many of them have just left home to go to University, to stand alone for the first time in a way that requires them to meet and engage with our culture in ways they haven’t before. Are they ready? Is the Church, through its life and teaching, equipping them? Statistics on the number of those who abandon the Church whilst at college seem to suggest not. I’m convinced that part of the reason is the legacy of this mystic, dualistic view of the secular/sacred. Rookmaaker saw 40 years ago that many Christians had largely abandoned the dogma of keeping clear of ‘worldly and fleshly pursuits’, but were generally ill-equipped to relate to culture as Christians. He diagnosed that amongst the younger generation ‘any sort of critical thinking is almost completely lacking. There is no artistic insight, nothing to point to, no answer to the relevant questions of a rising generation.’

Only a Reformed Christianity which adopts an all-embracing view of God’s relationship with his creation – for this reflects the biblical view so strongly enshrined in the wisdom literature – can equip Christians to relate to culture as Christians, to live effectively, not only in the world of the arts, but in the world in general.

Puritanism’s Legacy

rookmaakerI’ve been dipping in and out of Rookmaaker’s classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. The commentary on various pieces of art is fascinating (I’m sure more so for an artist), but Rookmaaker’s diagnosis of the malaise in Western society and in the church stands out. Although now 40 years old, it doesn’t feel anything but timely. What struck me particularly was something I read in chapter 2 (The Roots of Contemporary Culture).

Rookmaaker highlights the influence of mysticism in Puritanism, tracing this back to the Reformation Anabaptists. He mentions some of the features of this mysticism: scepticism about outward forms of religion; a strong antipathy towards dogmatism in church order; and, a tendency to antinomianism. This interests me because I grew up in an evangelicalism powerfully influenced by the revival of interest in Puritanism in the mid-20th century. The features of that evangelicalism have been something I’ve reflected on often over the last few years. I recognise the features that Rookmaaker highlights, but it’s his focus on the dualistic view of life that arose from this mysticism that particularly interests me. This dualism depreciates everything outside of the ‘spiritual’.

[Puritanism] took from the Reformation its profound reverence for the Scriptures as a base for all theological thinking and daily living. But through mystical streams it was often tinged by a kind of subjectivism and a tendency to look for holiness in a legalistic and spiritualized way in an effort to keep clear of all worldly and fleshly pursuits. 30

Rookmaaker goes on to argue (and I’m sure he’s right) that this is the reason why the Reformed tradition has had little interest, in general, in the arts or in culture. In contrast , the expansive vision that ought to be embraced by Calvinism is beautifully expressed…

It is basic to thinking about culture in the tradition of the Calvinist Reformation that there is no duality between a higher and a lower, between grace and nature. This world is God’s world. He created it, He sustains it, He is interested in it. He called the work of His hands good in the very beginning. Nothing is excluded. Everything, from the lowest atom or animal life to the highest doxology, everything belongs to Him. Nothing can exist outside of Him, and all things have a meaning only in relation to Him. 36

And so, a Christian response to national culture follows…

Where things are loving, good, right and true, where things are according to God’s law and His will for creation, there is no problem. The Christian will appreciate and actively enjoy and enter into all the good things God has made. But where they have been spoilt or warped by sin, then the Christian must show by his life, his words, his action, his creativity what God really intended them to be. He has been made new in Christ, been given a new quality of life which is in harmony with God’s original intention for man. He has been given the power of God Himself by the Holy Spirit, who will help him to work out his new life into the world around him. 38