Papers presented to the Dawson Centre to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, 31 October 2017

1.   The Revd Campbell Markham:

Who was Martin Luther?

1) Luther was a Miner’s Son

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, into a Roman Catholic Family. His father, Hans, a prosperous mine owner, wanted him to be a lawyer. In this way Martin would have been able to care for his parents in their later years.

Aged 22 Luther completed his undergraduate studies, and was on his way to commence his legal studies when he was caught in a thunderstorm. In fear he cried out, “St Anne, save me, I will become a monk!”

Saint Anne was the patron saint of miners. 

2) Luther was an Augustinian Monk and Priest

In 1505 Luther entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt. This was a so-called “Observant” order of Augustinians, an order that wanted to get back to the rigors of the original program. At the same time the hermits could serve the community as parish priests, and in hospitals, schools, and universities.

Luther hoped to find peace for his soul in Monastic life.

In his 24th year, Luther was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass. His Father attended this great occasion with a procession of twenty horsemen, and gave a very generous gift to the monastery. Afterwards he expressed his deep disappointment in Luther’s decision to forsake law for the cloth. Luther argued that he was only obeying God. Hans pointed out that God commanded children to honour their parents. This weighed heavily on Luther’s conscience into his old age.

His first Mass plunged Luther into turmoil. To be standing as priest in the presence of God, and handling, as he thought at the time, the real presence of Christ, terrified Luther. He used the German word anfechtung to describe his feelings, a word that refers to an inner maelstrom, despair, and distress.

In an effort to find salvation and peace, Luther threw himself into the monastic program. Apparently he fasted, prayed, and abstained from sleep, far more than required. Later he said: “If any monk could be saved by monkishness, it was me!”

He confessed his sins until he wore his confessors out. Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General of Luther’s order, said in exasperation: “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes!” and at another time her urged Luther, “Just love God!” “Love God?” Luther replied, “Sometimes I hate him!”

He couldn’t find peace. He knew that he hadn’t earned salvation.

In 1510, aged 27, Luther visited Rome as part of a delegation to the pope. The renaissance was in full bloom, and Michelangelo was at the time on his back painting his frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Although failed to gain a papal audience, he did climb on his knees the twenty-eight steps of the Scala Sancta, as an act of penitence for his dead grandfathers.

Overall, he was shocked by the visible immorality, crass commercialism, and religious cynicism of the “Holy City.” All too often he heard priests making mocking fun of the saints and rituals of the church.

Luther was especially shocked by the sale of Indulgences, which we will return to in a moment.

3) Luther was an Academic

Luther’s extraordinary intellectual abilities were being noticed. In 1508, in his 25th year, Luther was sent to Wittenberg, in the eastern part of Germany, to teach ethics at the university, newly founded in 1502. In 1511 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Theology, and was made Professor of Biblical Exegesis, a position that he retained until his death 35 years later.

In 1515 he was made a vicar in his order, and put in charge of eleven Augustinian monasteries. (And so he came to have a much wider influence.) From 1512-19 he undertook an intensive study of the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians.

Theologically, Luther had trained to be a Nominalist, a position that allowed a person a limited but definite role in their justification. Luther’s exegetical work led him to a new position: where he saw that the righteousness of God was not something infused into the Christian, but imputed to the Christian. A Christian is justified by faith not by religious ritual or good works, but only on the basis of the imputed merits of Christ. Human works or religious observance brings nothing to salvation, for “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

Important parallels have been noted between Luther’s doctrines and Augustine’s writings against Pelagius. In any case, Luther found the peace he was looking for in this doctrine. Years later, in a letter to his associate Melanchthon, he wrote, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

In other words, don’t think that your works or piety can contribute in the least to salvation.


4) Luther was a Protestor

Rediscovery of Justification by Faith made Luther angry about Indulgences. The doctrine of the Indulgences is often caricatured, but its basis is quite sophisticated, and presupposes these three dogmas:

1) That divine justice demands that sin be penalised even after the sinner is reconciled to God by penitence and absolution.

2) That there is available a treasury of merits that can be accessed by any Christian, that has been accumulated not only Bible Christ, but also by the Saints and Mary.

3) That the Church has the right to administer these merits: in consideration of prayers or other good works.

Sophisticated or not, this had however been turned into a crass commercial transaction: “You pay the church money, the church will shorten your time in purgatory.” The notorious Johann Tetzel, one of the more prominent priest-pedlars of indulgences, even came up with this jingle (the translation apparently captures the original doggerel): “As soon as a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

The Indulgences enraged Luther for two reasons. Firstly he found it to be thoroughly anti-scriptural and opposed to the doctrine of justification by faith. Secondly, as a patriotic German, he hated the way the German poor were being fleeced of their savings to pay for building projects in Italy.

On the 31st October 1517, aged 33, Luther posted his immortal 95 Theses, or questions, primarily about the Indulgences. Here are six of them:

27 They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28 It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased.

32 Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

35 They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

36 Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

37 Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

These theses were quickly copied and spread, and exploded in Europe like a theological bomb. Luther followed this up, in 1520, with three treatises:

1) To the Christian nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.

This was a critique of the secular-sacred distinction, and argued for the priesthood of all believers. Any Christians may challenge the pope on the interpretation of Scripture, and any Christian has the right to call for the church to reform.

2) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

This criticised the withholding of wine to the laity, opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation, and argued for two sacraments only: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

3) The Freedom of the Christian

This, one of Luther’s most attractive writings, argued that the Christian is freed by their justification from the bondage of religious ritual and works for salvation. The book centred around these paradoxical aphorisms:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In 1520 the Pope Leo X issued his bull Exsurge Domine, “Rise up O Lord!” Rise up to smite Luther! Luther was given sixty days to recant. He responded by burning the bull in a public square in Wittenberg.

5) Luther was a Fugitive

Luther was therefore called to be tried at the Diet of Worms in 1521, a great gathering of the religious and secular governing authorities of the Holy Roman Empire, presided over by Emperor Charles V himself.

Travelling to Worms was very dangerous for Luther, but Charles promised safe passage.

And so Luther appeared, a solitary monk in his simple cassock, before the imposing governmental and ecclesiastical might of western Europe.

The prosecutor confronted Luther with his books, 25 of them were laid out on a table. Luther was commanded to recant. He begged leave for 24 hours to give his answer. He Prayed. He consulted with close friends. A large crowd gathered, and his reply was classic:

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships: I ask you to observe that my books are not all of the same kind.

There are some in which I have dealt with piety in faith and morals with such simplicity and so agreeably with the Gospels that my adversaries themselves are compelled to admit them useful, harmless, and clearly worth reading by a Christian. Even the Bull, harsh and cruel though it is, makes some of my books harmless, although it condemns them also, by a judgment downright monstrous. If I should begin to recant here, what, I beseech you, would I be doing but condemning that truth which is admitted by friends and foes alike?

The second kind consists in those writings levelled against the papacy and the doctrine of the papists, as against those who by their wicked doctrines and precedents have laid waste Christendom by doing harm to the souls and the bodies of men. No one can either deny or conceal this, for universal experience and world-wide grievances are witnesses to the fact that through the Pope’s laws and through man-made teachings the consciences of the faithful have been most pitifully ensnared, troubled, and racked in torment, and also that their goods and possessions have been devoured by unbelievable tyranny. If then I recant these, the only effect will be to add strength to such tyranny, to open not the windows but the main doors to such blasphemy.

The third kind consists of those books which I have written against private individuals; against those who have exerted themselves in defence of the Roman tyranny and to the overthrow of that piety which I have taught. I confess that I have been more harsh against them than befits my religious vows and my profession. For I do not make myself out to be any kind of saint. But it is not in my power to recant them, because that recantation would give that tyranny and blasphemy an occasion to lord it over those whom I defend and to rage against God’s people more violently than ever.

And so, through the mercy of God, I ask Your Imperial Majesty, and Your Illustrious Lordships, or anyone of any degree, to defeat my books by the writings of the Prophets or by the Gospels; for I shall be most ready, if I be better instructed, to recant any error, and I shall be the first in casting my writings into the fire.

The prosecutor retorted:   “Tell us plainly: are you prepared to recant, or not?” Luther responded:

Since your Lordships demand a simple answer, Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convinced of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning, since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves, I stand convinced by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against conscience is neither wise nor safe.

Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

What was the response of the council?

We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

6) Luther was a Bible Translator

Charles kept his promise and allowed Luther to leave Worms, but on the way to Wittenberg he was kidnapped by armed men. In fact they were friends, and they took Luther to the Wartburg castle. There he grew a beard and lived disguised as a knight, “Junker Jorg,” Sir George.

There in the Wartburg Luther translated the New Testament into German. (He translated the Old Testament some years later.)  His conviction that every Christian must believe and live according to Holy Scripture drove him to do this. By doing so, not only did he place the whole Bible in the hands of every German, he also gave a book that came to unify the diverse dialects of the Germanic peoples into one national language.

Of his translating work Luther wrote: “The Holy Scriptures are a vast and mighty forest, but there is not a single tree in it that I have not shaken with my own hand.”

And of the Scriptures he said:

Oh how great and glorious a thing it is to have the Word of God in front of you! With it we can always feel joyful and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.

7) Luther was a Family Man

In 1523, in his forty-first year, Luther helped twelve nuns escape from a Cistercian Convent, smuggled out in herring barrels. Luther arranged marriages for eleven, leaving only Katharina von Bora.

Writing to a friend in 1524, Luther had said, “I shall never take a wife, as I feel at present. Not that I am insensible to my flesh or sex (for I am neither wood nor stone); but my mind is averse to wedlock because I daily expect the death of a heretic.”

Luther however married Katie. It was a happy marriage, and they had six children together.

“My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for all the riches of Croesus.”

Luther died in 1546 in Eisleben, the city of his birth, at the age of 62.


A final thought

I finish by observing the notable fact that a Protestant Pastor is delivering a lecture on Martin Luther on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation under the auspices of a Roman Catholic society: the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, dedicated to advancing Catholic tradition.

Truly, one of the greatest delights of my nine years in Hobart is the friendship that I have come to enjoy with so many Roman Catholics, not least with Dr Daintree, Director of the Dawson Centre, Alex Sidhu, and Archbishop Julian Porteous.

(I am especially pleased that the Archbishop and I are friends, not least because of the remote possibility we may one day have to share a jail cell.)

Indeed, the friendship that my wife Amanda-Sue and I enjoy with the Catholic Church was formed while standing together against the drive of unjust and immoral laws, such as the legalisation of abortion, prostitution, and medical killing; and the redefinition of marriage.

From this perspective, it isn’t strange that I speak under at a Catholic Church event this evening, for we are brothers in arms.

We live an age, however, where principled disagreement and reasoned argument has become a lost art. We live at a time when friends are not supposed to disagree with each other; where disagreement is now almost always equated with disrespect, and even enmity.

It is tempting, while breathing this atmosphere, to sustain our friendship by pretending that our differences are not real or important – or even to make light of them.

I respect the convictions of my Catholic friends too much for this. I respect your convictions too much to pretend that we do not sharply disagree on some very important doctrines.

Nor would you respect me if I pretended that what we believe is all basically the same, and that our differences don’t really matter.

Let us deny the great lie of our age, that disagreement means disrespect and even hatred.

Instead, in the name of truth, and out of deep regard for the hard-won convictions that we hold, let us openly acknowledge that many of the doctrines that were contended 500 years ago are doctrines that we continue to contend today.

For example, our authority is different. The Roman Catholic looks to the Authority of Scripture, the Popes, and the Traditions of the Church; whereas the Protestant looks to Scripture Alone.

And our conviction about our justification before God also differs. The Protestant believes that we are justified by faith alone, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2020, teaches that Justification is “granted through baptism.”

And we differ in our understanding of the nature of justification. The Catholic Catechism teaches that justification is indistinct from the inward ethical transformation of the Christian; whereas the Protestant believes that justification is the Christian’s objective legal status of “not-guilty,” a status that must inevitably lead to renovation, but yet is distinct from it.

Let us respect each other enough to acknowledge that we cannot both be right about these core doctrines, and that these differences are far from trivial.

If the Australian Church is going to survive the onslaught of radical subjectivism, then we must never, by buying into the relativism of our age, paper over our differences.

This would sever us from our own roots, from our own deepest theological convictions.

Instead, we must go back to our roots, with a genuine willingness to be transformed by the truth, and to ask: “How do we differ?” “Why do we hold a different view?” “What reasons have led to this difference?”

If we are going to be Roman Catholic, then let us be convinced Roman Catholics. If we are going to be Protestant, then let us be convinced Protestants. Let us never lazily drift on a calm pool of subjectivism.

When it comes to Martin Luther, I believe that this is something we can all agree on: that it is good to fearlessly question, to examine, to dig deep, and to come to sincerely and deeply held convictions.

May we all come to that place, where, like Luther and many others in the Church through the centuries, we can say:

Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.


2.   Peirce Baehr:

The Bible and Culture


“Christians suppressed all science, music, books and art for centuries. They have never created anything.”

That was almost the first thing a fiery young Italian and his partner told my over dinner a few years ago.

As you may know, we run a ministry called Pilgrim Hill. We’re grateful to God, we’ve gotten to feed and share the Gospel with folks from over 45 countries, at weekly dinners, with up to 80 guests a night.

Most of our guests are young and ignorant or apathetic: they know little or nothing about the Bible and its story, and they don’t care. Sometimes they’re a bit feistier: they care a lot, but they still know nothing.  Our first year, we had this fiery young Italian couple. They earned the nickname “the angry Italian atheist.” They came to their first Pilgrim Dinner in January and stuck around for four months, completely changing perspective by the time they left.

Yet almost the first thing they said to us: “Christians suppressed all science, music, books and art for centuries.  They have never created anything.”

Let your jaws drop.  You’d think, living in Italy, they’d give credit for Vivaldi, or da Vinci, or Dante; frescos and mosaics; church architecture, etc. But no: their narrative “Christians suppress, Christians don’t create.”

I’m sure you’ve heard it before. “Christians produce nothing, suppress learning, start crusades, burn witches, and worse.” For many people, that’s all they know about Christians. Which means the only thing most people know is a complete lie.

Tonight, we get to shine a light at the Truth. Rather than destroying culture, we’ll see that Christianity does the very reverse. Indeed, as I aim to show you tonight, the truths of the Bible are the source and life blood of any good we see in culture at all.

To demonstrate this, we’ll be looking at the Bible and Culture. It’s one of my favourite topics, there are so many things worth saying, we could be here for days. But to fit the time, and keep things short:

  • first I’m going to define our primary terms,

  • then I’ll apply the topic in three ways,

so that you may see and be encouraged by how profoundly the Bible has and must shape culture. I’m praying that my words would be edifying to you whether you’ve heard this sort of message a thousand times or never heard it before at all.

Defining Terms

Let’s start with our terms.

What is the Bible?  Physically it’s a collection of 66 books written over a 1500and year period, consisting of two primary divisions (Old and New Testaments) and containing a huge variety of genres, including:  poetry, narrative, prophecy, letters, and more. This physical artefact is the Bible.

But the Bible is far more than a physical artefact. As Christians, we know the Bible to be: the inspired words of God himself; a book created by God for the edification of his people.  And we are edified by the Bible’s content. It’s the content of this Bible that makes the Bible so unique. Despite multiple human writers, the Bible tells a comprehensive, unified story. A story we call the Gospel. So what is the story…

What is the Gospel?

Sounds like the easy one, but too often, Christians don’t define it. How you define the Gospel makes a huge difference. We need to define the Gospel to know we’re heading in the right direction.

On the surface, you probably all know that the Greek word for Gospel is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), which means good news. But did you know that the English word Gospel come from old English Good Spell. Yes, like magic spell. But, at that time, spell meant story. [Think of the German word spiel].  The Gospel is the Good Story.  But what is this Good Story about?  If you been around the traps, you know that ‘Gospel’ is often shorthand for Jesus death on the cross to pay for our sins, so that we who trust in him can have eternal life. This is true. And it is an unfathomably Good Story. Indeed, it’s the centre point of history, and each of our stories.

But it’s not the whole Gospel. If we stopped there, our Gospel would be too small. When the Bible uses the word Gospel, it includes much more. For example, in Mark 1:1 we read “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” Mark says he’s giving us the beginning of the Gospel in his book. What is Mark’s Gospel? It’s the story of Jesus — the whole story, including: his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection; his ascent, rule, return and judgment; and his eternal reign. Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of the whole story about Jesus.

And that’s also what the other Gospels are: Matthew, Luke, and John. [That’s why we call them Gospels]. They are stories about Jesus. The story of Jesus is the Gospel.  But, that’s still not all the Bible uses the word Gospel for.

Do you know what Jesus himself most often says the Gospel is about? When Jesus says “the Gospel of…” in the Gospels, he almost always ends with “…the Kingdom”. That is, the Kingdom of God. The content of our Good Story is also the Kingdom of God.  Which makes more sense if you know the most frequent title for Jesus in the New Testament is Lord. [Not Saviour or Messiah, but Lord]. The title comes up over 600 times. We’ve got a Kingdom and a Lord.

With this lens, looking over Bible, it’s easy to see the Gospel is the story of God’s Kingdom coming under its Lord, Jesus. The Gospel is the whole epic narrative of God’s work on earth to bring His Kingdom through Jesus: an epic epically dwarfing all others, Tolkien included, which involves everything that was, is and will be; covering the entire story of history from Creation through Consummation; spanning the entire Bible, but centred on our Lord, Jesus, the hero and his redemptive, God-glorifying work of mercy, through his incarnation, death, resurrection, rule and return.

What is the Bible?

It’s the God-inspired account of this Greatest-of-all stories. The Bible is the God-given book whose content is the Gospel.

So what is Culture?

I’ve got three answers, intimately related.


The theologian Henry Van Til (nephew to Cornelius) was partly right when he said: “Culture is religion externalised.” Culture is what our beliefs or worldviews look like when live them out: what they look like in the things we do, the stuff we make, the clothes we wear, our art, science, music, etc.  Put this way, I like to say, culture is fruit. It’s the fruit of what a group of people believe. It’s the fruit of their worldview.  We’ll come back to that idea in minute, so hold that thought: culture = fruit.


I said Van Til’s famous quote was partly right. Here’s why it was only partly right.  In talking about culture as fruit – we’re seeing it as a unified thing: a mass noun, like sand, or water; something we treat like one thing, though made up of many.  But, we can also talk about cultures, a diversified thing, like: Japanese culture, Australian culture, American culture.

Sometimes we can get squeamish about cultural diversity as a PC code word, but we shouldn’t.  Our God loves a diverse, full creation, even more than the tolerance crowd.

Consider that our God made more than 1.7 million different species, including: the peacock, the baboon, the giraffe (all seven species of them), the cockroach, the cherry tree, the moustached guenon; the Mantis shrimp, a critter 10cm long with the most complex eyes of any animal on earth — where we have 3 types of colour cones in our eyes, they have AT LEAST 16 different types of cones — who knows what that critter sees; the lowly caterpillar, which becomes complete mush before turning into a butterfly; or the jelly fish, that basically turns into a plant for half its lifecycle, reproducing both sexually and asexually. God is comfortable with diversity – he designed it.

This is true not only of animals, plants, but of cultural diversity too. Revelation 5:9 says, in a hymn of praise to Jesus: “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Revelation 21:23-26 adds, at end of time, about the great city — the new Jerusalem: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.”

Here’s where things get interesting.

Two cultures, like two people can produce right fruit and look different. Take a look at your neighbour: one of you is taller; one thinner; one of you is a better dancer. Does that stop either of you worshipping God in the right way? Of course not!  Remember the different parts of Christ’s body in 1 Cor 12? God ordained some to be eyes, some hands; some preachers, some in admin. See, your difference doesn’t stop you worshipping God the right way. Rather, our differences exist exactly so we can most fully worship God together, each in the way God designed for his glory. It’s part of His Good Story.

So too with cultures. God designed the diversity of cultures. He clearly doesn’t expect all cultures to be eye or hand. He designed each culture to fully worship God in specific ways:

Japanese culture to worship Him in a Japanese way; Australian culture in an Australian way; and the same with American culture.

Remember Revelation. God wants all the glory and honour of all nations in the new city. So the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or worse “you must be me.” God has so designed cultures to differ for his ultimate glory telling a story through it.

In this sense, culture is more than religion externalised, more than fruit. It’s more like the use of word ‘culture’ in biology. Think of a bacteria colony, petri dish and all: an organic society, designed and grown by God, and there are a huge diversity of them. Within the bounds of true Biblical unity, this diversity is a very good thing. So culture can mean not only fruit, but also the diversity of human societies, designed by God for his glory.


Which brings us to our third and deepest meaning: culture as worship.  Did you know, the word culture comes from the Latin colere, meaning to tend, dwell, worship.  That Latin word gave us all our English words starting C – U – L – T, like: cultivate, cultured, and cult. In English, “cult” is a bad word, but in many languages it isn’t. It just means ‘worship’.  This combined meaning — tend, dwell, worship — fits beautifully the Christian story.

Remember, the first command of God to us in Genesis 1:28:  “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”

Often called cultural mandate, our first command involves tending and dwelling. In obeying this command, like any command, we are worshiping God.  The cultural mandate was man’s first call to worship and we’re still called to worship God through culture: the command is ongoing, God never revoked it, it still applies to us.

Culture is a form of our worship.

Everything we do to take dominion: being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, and subduing/ruling it, including our art, our science, our literature, our music, our fashions. All of these aspects of culture are forms of worship. Culture is worship.

I have no time to go further, but Luke Jankovic wrote an excellent piece a few years back, which I highly recommend you read. Run a Duckduckgo search for “Worship culture Jankovic” (you could also use those other, evil-doing search engines, but I’ll leave that to your conscience).

What is culture?

You can parse the word three ways:

  • The fruit of our beliefs

  • The diversity of our societies

  • The expression of our worship.

All three definitions help us understand our topic: the Bible and culture.


Now that we’ve defined the Bible, its subject the Gospel, and Culture, how does the Bible relate to culture?

Our commitment and love of God’s Good Story should shape all three meanings of culture:

  • Affecting the fruit of our beliefs: objects, ideas, outward manifestations of our culture.

  • Protecting the diversity of our societies: making it possible for us distinguish sin from legitimate difference.

  • Driving our worship: shaping the ways we dedicate our lives to God.

We’ll look at each of these in turn.

Having the Bible shape culture affects the quality of our fruit. Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.” (Lk 6:43) Like you can know person by fruit, you can know a worldview by cultural fruit. So let’s take gander at the fruit of a few worldviews.

Did you know that the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history? And Atheism was a huge cause. Not counting the carnage of both World Wars, over 281,000,000 people were killed by atheist rulers — people committed to Communism, National Socialism, and other atheist political philosophies, like: Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and Tito — names synonymous with evil who show the fruit of the atheist worldview, where man can be as God, because in a godless universe, might makes right.

As a point of comparison, consider the greatest wrong Christians are often blamed for: the Crusades. By the most generous estimate, counting deaths on both sides, perhaps a million people died in the Crusades. Many scholars put the number much lower. Remember, the Crusades were a series of wars, lasting over 200 years. And contra popular media, plenty of academics admit there were just reasons for the Crusades.

Regardless, it’s a helpful comparison. A 200 year Catholic-Muslim conflict killed less than 1 million people. But 20th atheist leaders alone killed nearly 300,000,000 people. Again, not counting the World Wars themselves, or the many, many other horrendous dehumanising evils perpetrated by these atheist on their own and other peoples.  Atheism when it rules a culture has produced some of the rottenest fruit in history.  But secularism and her twin, therapeutic deism, are little better.  Since abortion became ‘legal’, in US alone, over 58,000,000 people — unborn humans — have been killed. Often gruesomely killed, torn limb from limb, in D & E abortions, feeling what must be excruciating trauma as they died. These deaths are fruit of philosophies that say unborn humans do not matter, they can be sacrificed to things like: time, convenience, preference; my wants, my wishes, my choices. Bear in mind, when we say the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, we’re not even counting these deaths.

The 20th century has produced a lot of extremely rotten fruit. Almost all directly a result of atheist and secular worldviews that say: “humans are just machines” or “humans are just monkeys”; “there is no ultimate right and wrong, so I can make up what I think is right and wrong”; “I can do whatever I like: I can murder millions to get what I want or I can murder one, unborn inside me, for the same reason.”

These worldviews are responsible for making the 20th century so bloody. But the 20th century is not alone in producing bad fruit. The cultures of the ancient world also grew rotten fruit.  One example: did you know, in Ancient Rome, the father had almost absolute power over his house? For almost any reason, he could have his wife put to death, or his servant, or any baby born in his house, including the babies of his servants. A Roman father could order their death based on his own preferences — whatever he liked. This was fruit of a pagan worldview that said power mattered most. It produced this and much other rotten fruit.  But again, it was not alone. Other religions have also produced bad fruit Hinduism created a caste system that kept millions in abject poverty. If the poor are there by the faults of a past life, why care for them? They deserve it. [We have actually had guests at our Pilgrim Dinners say as much.]  In Islam, at least 20% of Muslims believe Jihad means physical warfare, based on a legitimate possible reading of their sacred texts. One Muslim scholar boasts that Islam has killed over 120,000,000 people in 1400 years of Islamic Jihad. He boasts about it because he thinks it a good thing — he thinks it is a boast-worthy fruit of Islam.

What we believe effects the fruit we produce. When we believe false things – real evil results. It matters what we believe.

So what happens when you start with the Bible? Start with truth?

We know the Bible says none of us as individuals is righteous (Romans 3:10). We all produce bad fruit. We naturally do evil because of the evil in our hearts. In the same way, we can see no human culture is righteous: not in the ancient world, not under Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or any other religion, and very obviously not under atheism. Our lives and history are clear that humans produce bad fruit.

But through the Bible God has given us a way out – a way that brings good fruit. See, despite being God’s enemies and producing bad fruit, Jesus, by becoming man to save and set us right in His Kingdom, makes it possible for us to produce good fruit. And he shows us what good fruit looks like.  For one most obvious thing, he showed us how very much humans and human cultures matter to him.  That’s why — not because of anything we’ve done, but because God first loved us — Christians living God’s way started the world’s first hospitals, hostels, orphanages, and charities to care for people rejected by non-Christian cultures — to save the lives of those babies that Roman fathers threw out.

It’s also why Christians are responsible for our modern system of human rights. I’m not a big fan of the modern language of rights, but the concept behind them, of caring for the weak whileacknowledging weakness, is thoroughly Christian. The rights of women, babies, the elderly; the poor, blind, and disabled; prisoners, slaves, and factory workers come from long centuries of Christian reform. Look it up, you will find it so. Through history, the key names and movements in these fields we Christians.

Human rights didn’t develop out of Ancient empires, Hinduism or Islam, Atheism or Communism. They did not because they could not. Those beliefs can’t produce that fruit.  In real history, human rights came out of Christian cultures. In fact, in 1948, when the UN put forward the Declaration of Human Rights, Islamic countries stood against it. They refused to sign it because knew it was Christian.  Human Rights and Hospitals are the fruit of the Bible. The fruit of God’s love for us.

If we serve a God whose love is so deep he would die to save us when we were his enemies — when all we produced was evil fruit — that’s going to change the kind of fruit we produce — how we treat others.

There are many other examples I could share, of fruit from the Bible, like: universities, the scientific method, even Harmonic music, which are only possible as fruits of the Bible: things that did not and could not exist as the fruit of other beliefs. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go into more detail, but if you are interested to know more, read “The Book that Made Your World” by a scholar from India named Vishal Mangalwadi. He shows all these things and more are only possible as a fruit of the Bible.

If we want this kind of good fruit in our cultures, the Bible must be shaping culture.

Secondly, if we to want protect godly diversity – the Bible must shape our cultures.  Godly diversity is really about two things: diversity and unity at same time. Though we are made diverse as individuals and cultures, we must be united in the truth, one in purpose in serving God.  Cultural diversity is not some false ecumenicism, or skin deep multiculturalism. It does not sacrifice God’s good news for false peace. It calls out sin as sin, and demands repentance. It has hard edges that cannot be violated. Yet it also isn’t communism, turning men into cogs and gears, and leaving a cultural grey.

Let me illustrate.

Two opposite human sins work against godly diversity:

  • The sin of unity at all costs.

  • The sin of diversity at all costs.

We see both errors everywhere the Bible isn’t shaping cultures.

For example, some beliefs say unity at all costs — unity must dominate. There are so many examples of this in history, like Communism, Islam, even secular pop culture. These beliefs say one culture should dominate everything, there should be only one culture.  These beliefs actively stomp out diversity. They create an ugly sameness, a dull cultural grey.  Think of the ugly architecture communism left everywhere it went.  Or Islam. As one former Muslim, now a Christian, Lamin Sanneh puts it: everywhere Islam goes it tries to recreate 7th century Arabia. The more seriously islamic an area becomes, the more like 7th century Arabia.  At a basic level, you get a dull cultural sameness.

But it gets worse.

When one culture must dominate, we see race hatreds, class warfare, religious hatred, etc, leading to horrors like: enforced poverty, slavery, and genocide. We’ve seen it under Communism and in the daily horrors of ISIS.  But such things don’t just happen out there. We also see them right here in the first world, in our popular culture, which values young independent adults above all else — which says they should be dominant. This leads to ugly cultural grey, people of all ages trying to look and act like young independent adults: five year old beauty queens, 75 year old beauty queens; 70 year olds with nose jobs, new cars, new wives.

But it also leads to much worse horrors like assisted suicide of the aged and disabled, because they don’t fit the dominant cultural ideal, they just get in the way. Or abortion of the unborn because they don’t fit the dominant cultural ideal, they just get in the way.

Beliefs like Communism, Islam and even secular popular culture say one culture should dominate, so hey destroy God given diversity, making an ugly, grey cultural sameness, and perpetrating horrors, leading to death.  It’s Grim. But the opposite problem is just as grim.

Some beliefs say diversity at all costs — diversity must dominate. These beliefs come under names like equality, tolerance, relativism, and multiculturalism. They say “no culture, no group is better than any other”, “all cultures must be equal”.  These beliefs actively stamp out unity and truth. The big problem is that they force us to pretend a lie, that everything is OK. Fully believed, they rob us of the ability to show love. If every culture must be equal, we can not judge — we cannot say: “the caste system in India is harmful” or “Abortion is wrong.” We must pretend everything is ok.

This is profoundly unloving. When horrible beliefs harming millions of people can’t be judged and get a free pass, we are showing the opposite of love. We are condemning people to death.  Or when a friend chooses sin — a life in darkness, acting against God’s good law — and we treat that sin as an acceptable life choice, we are not showing love. Rather the opposite: we are condemning our friend to death.

True love, wants what is best for the other. Which means, it doesn’t tolerate sin and wrong. It cares enough to speak out against brokenness to seek to see it resolved.

The godly solution is neither unity without diversity nor diversity without unity. Both ways lead to death. Yet without Bible, every human culture falls for one of these.

To get out of the trap, we need the Bible to shape our cultures. Through the truths of the Bible, God has given us a way out. He’s shown us how both unity and diversity matter to him, and fit together. Indeed, only through the Bible can they.  God showed us diversity matters in the incarnation, He became a human being in a specific culture. The God of universe, creator of everything, took on a specific human culture, came to us at our level, and reached out to us, for love of us.  Ever since, when Christians have spread the Gospel, they’ve cared about local cultures. From St Paul to Hudson Taylor, from St Patrick to Steve Saint, Christians have intentionally copied the incarnation by enculturating the Gospel to bring good news to the full diversity of cultures.  Did you know the Bible is the first book in almost every written language? Almost every national literature started with the Bible or part of it — with the hard work of Christians putting God’s word in local languages.  This is true for thousands of languages and has been going on for thousands of years, from long before Cyril and Methodius, to countless numbers of missionaries with groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators today. Men and women who have given their lives, like Christ, to bring the Gospel to people through translation.

You know, it doesn’t have to be that way — the Christian belief in the incarnation and Biblical translation has its opposite in a religion like Islam. The Quran is never meant to be translated.  Do you want to be a good Muslim? You need to learn to recite the Quran in 7th century Arabic.  Worship of Allah is never incarnational, never localised. There is only one form of worship intended for everyone, everywhere. All good Muslims are meant to worship in exactly the same way.  You can see the difference in Africa. Northern Africa: the more Islamic, the more same.

Southern Africa: Christian diversity.

As an example – you may not know it, but care for diverse cultures through Bible translation made a profound different in African and Middle Eastern history. See, when Islam spread across the world in the six + seven hundreds, it destroyed Christian cultures everywhere it settled — wiped them out. But every culture that had a Bible translation when Islam came — every culture except one — still has a Christian church today. Because Christian translators took seriously Gods love for local cultures, those cultures were able to resist Islam; those cultures could be Bible shaped themselves.  The Biblical incarnational love, of godly diversity, matters. Christians living biblically have valued and built up local cultures all over the world. Just as God incarnated himself for love of same.  But diversity cannot stand alone.

The Bible also emphatically shows unity matters. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to God except through him (Jn 14:6). There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, by which we must be saved (Ac 4:12). There is one body and one Spirit —just as you were called to one hope at your calling— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4:4-5).  The Bible is clear, unity in the truth is essential for all cultures.

So how do these two things fit together – unity and diversity? In the deepest truth of Biblical reality: that God is Trinity. He is both truth and love, perfection and personality, unity and diversity, forever and always within himself.  This fundamental truth makes three things possible that are impossible as the fruit of human worldviews and religions.

First, our God is able to create and love a diversity of cultures. Worldviews like Atheism and Islam cannot account for our diversity).

Second, He can do this despite our profound sin and brokenness. Tolerance and relativism cannot account for our sin.

Third, He is able to redeem us out of our sin and brokenness — to change what is broken in our cultures and make us whole. The non-Christian world cannot do this. Such a task would make the anthropologist short-circuit: “How could you change a culture?!” Or an atheist superman laugh: “Just crush the under-evolved thing!” Or the tolerance crowd cry foul. For them, it is literally meaningless to love the sinner and hate the sin: they have no category for sin separate from sinner.

You need godly diversity, grounded in unity, shaped by the Trinity to have these things. The Bible alone can make way for true diversity and unity.

So far, we’ve seen having a Bible shaped culture affects the quality of our fruit and protects true unity and diversity.

Changing gears, finally, I want to show that if culture is worship, we also need the Bible to shape culture by driving our worship Campbell has been speaking to us tonight about Martin Luther. One way that Luther continues to challenge us as both protestants and Catholics is to value non-religious vocations. There’s a temptation that we, the church, protestant and Catholic, have frequently succumbed to and which has its roots in ancient pagan gnosticism, which says that the body is bad and the spirit is good. Fully fledged, it can turn into mono-physitism, which denies the full humanity of Christ.  Now this is a massive subject and I can’t do justice to it tonight. But I want to give this warning:

If the Bible doesn’t shape our worship, other beliefs will. The ancient cults are ready to step in when the Bible is removed from its proper place of driving/shaping our worship.  Over and over again — feeling the pull of gnostic dualism — we’ve created a two-tiered holiness system where those who work in religious vocations are more holy, more valuable than those who do the everyday work of tending and dwelling (remember the latin source of our word culture). To say, “that over there — that prayer, preaching, fasting, studying, contemplation — that is worship, but this over here — this caring, teaching, building, cooking, birthing, working — is just normal life.” And if you think I’m talking about Catholics right now, think again. I’ve said the same things many times to Protestants.

We need to be aware of this dualistic pull, especially when the world gets dark around us. If the spirit is better than the body, and everything around us is going wrong, we’re prone to push everyone into religious vocations. We adopt a “ship’s on fire” mindset and we throw the cultural cargo overboard. In our effort to be more pragmatic than God, we ditch the things we think are extraneous. And then our Italian atheist couple might as well be right.  But if Christ will reign until every enemy is under his feet (1 Co 15:25), the ship may be here a long time. If history teaches us anything, it’s that God is an incrementalist.

A wise man named Christopher Dawson once said, “The Christian church lives in the light of eternity and can afford to be patient.” Putting the worship of God first lets us play the long game. It lets us live in the light of eternity. It lets the Bible shape our culture by driving our worship, our whole-of-life worship to our creator God.  Rather than being pragmatic about how to shape our worship, we need to trust God in His perfect timing, be patient, and build for the future. Build a culture as an act of worship, a Bible-shaped culture with institutions that glorify God, and prepare the next generation to continue to serve in the Gospel story.

For this is what we are called to do in the Cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. It’s an essential part of our worship. The promising medical student, the artist, the mother, the children — they aren’t distractions. They, their work, and our work with them are essential in the worship of God. They are part of the body, along with preachers, teachers, and evangelists. They are essential for a Bible-shaped culture

By leaving out the cultural mandate from the Gospel story, this provides the perfect conditions for the local church to burn out and the next generation to be wiped away by whatever cults are popular among the unchurched — something that has happened many times in history. See for example the books of Judges or Kings.

As an aside, when we’re tempted to think the ‘ship’s on fire’ in our evangelism, a temptation with many dangerous consequences, we need to remember that God alone is in charge of the hearts of people. He is in control. We awesomely get to be a part of God’s rescue story, but it’s not about us: it’s His story, and He’s winning (1 Co 15:25). So we are not on fire. We don’t ever need to be anxious in our worship. We just need to be obedient. Which again proves, we need the whole Bible shaping culture to drive our worship.


To close up, I’ll recap.

The Bible tells the story of the Gospel, which is the greatest of all good stories, the epic God is telling through all history. It’s the story of God’s Kingdom coming under the Lord, Jesus to bring the world into right worship of Him again for all eternity. Culture is the fruit of what a group believes, or the diversity of societies God has lovingly created, or a form of worship, based on God’s first commandment to us.

How does the Bible relate to culture?  Our love and commitment to this Good Story God is telling:

  • affects the fruit we produce — what we do and make as a culture;

  • protects the godly diversity God created = making it possible for us to enjoy difference

  • drives our worship = directing the ways we live our lives for God

It almost would have been better to ask the question the other way round: how doesn’t the Bible shape culture?  To produce fruit at all, to worship at all, to live in any kind of diversity, every culture already starts from the Bible — the Good Story — whether it likes it or not. No culture, even a sinful, broken one, is possible without starting there.

Even ignorant and anti-Christian cultures can’t escape the Good Story: anything they do, like it or not, is part of that story — possible only because of that story. As Scripture puts it

“For from God and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory

forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

So to those Italian atheists, who said:

“Christians suppressed all science, music, books and art for centuries. They have never created anything”

They are certainly wrong, historically speaking. But they are also wrong, fundamentally about the Bible. Because without the truths of the Bible — without the true facts of the Good Story we’re in — nothing would’ve been created: none of the science, music, books and art that has ever been. The only reason we have culture at all, is because of the Good Story of the Bible.



The Christopher Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture was founded on the other side of the Australian continent in Perth just a few months before the Dawson Centre was established.  We enjoy an excellent relationship with it.

Mercatornet is an excellent online journal specialising in ethical dilemmas in the modern world.

The Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty

The Institute for Judaism and Civilization Inc

Campion College is Australia’s only liberal arts college, offering a single BA degree based on the core subjects of Theology, Philosophy, History and Literature, with options in Latin, Mathematics and Science.

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project

The Australian Chesterton Society now has its own website