Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Age?

How much are we shaped by our culture? I think it is true to say that we are not only shaped by our culture but that we are in many ways inseparable from our culture. This is not all bad either. God has called individuals to himself from every tribe and tongue. This means in some sense he wants a diverse witness of the glory and grace of Jesus Christ in every land and every culture. In other words, there is a sense in which it is honoring to the glory of Christ and helpful to the mission of the gospel that we are a part of our culture.

On the other hand, Christians have always recognized a need to be distinct from their culture as well as a part of it. As saints (for instance, Col. 1:2, 4, 12), all Christians are fundamentally different than the rest of humanity. At the very least, that difference is rooted in our new relationship with God the Father, through the work of God the Son, by the power of God the Spirit. The truth of the Christian gospel is unchanging, rooted in the objective revelation found in the Bible. Because of this there should be a certain continuity between Christians of every age and culture (Jude 3).

Where are evangelicals today? Historian Mark Noll makes a rather significant claim: “It is not an exaggeration to claim that this nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged.”

Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, p. 3.

I believe Noll is right. In the nineteenth century, some radical changes took place which altered the fundamental character of professing evangelicalism. The result is that in today’s evangelicalism, there seems to be a radical departure from a biblically instructed and biblically anchored faith that goes beyond mere cultural variety. Sadly, evangelicals today have imbibed far more of the spirit of the age than the Holy Spirit.

This reveals the need to examine ourselves to see how our personal faith and convictions are rightly or wrongly influenced by our culture. Sometimes this is not as easy to discern as we might suppose. What portion of our personal beliefs and convictions actually arise from the Bible and what portion arise from our upbringing, our experience, our religious leaders, in short…our culture?


2 responses to “Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Age?

  1. Eric Turnbaugh

    This is true.

    As Christians, we need to be equipped to both engage and transcend the culture, not be enslaved to it. We would be wise to follow the example of Christ and Paul, both of whom knew the time and culture in which they ministered.

    Two opposite, yet equally damaging, phenomena appear in modern evangelicalism. One group focuses so much on mirroring the surrounding culture and being like them that the focus shifts from Christ. Conversely, others focus so much on withdrawing and looking unlike the surrounding culture, thus creating a “Christian” subculture, that they stop focusing on looking like Christ. Either way, the culture, whether it is venerated or denigrated, occupies the spotlight, stealing it from Christ.

    However, what I find most remarkable is how the surrounding culture has even shaped a great deal of the church’s theology, particularly in the realm of eschatology. For example, during the ministries of Luther and Calvin, the world seemed to be on the upswing; things appeared to be getting better. Those great men of God were both postmillenial. The same is true of Jonathan Edwards: The world seemed to be getting better, and he adopted a postmillenial eschatology, something he wrote extensively on. However, from the late 19th century onward, when the world seemed begin going downhill again, tribulational premillenialism (as opposed to classic premillenialism) and amillenialism, both of which hold significantly less optimistic views of earth’s future, greatly grew in popularity. I imagine that this is not a coincidence.

    Similar parallels could be drawn with soteriology, Christian living, church membership, and several other areas.

  2. Very true! The year 1914 was a bad year for the popularity post millenial theology.


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