Theology and Culture

Dr. James Emery White

There is a great deal of discussion these days in regard to understanding culture sociologically, but very little about understanding it theologically.  But a theological understanding is crucial.  It is not a difficult theology to grasp.  Here is the headline:

“As the world is, it is not as it was intended to be nor is it what it is going to be.”

This simple statement allows us to sketch out all of history in terms of three stages:

The first stage might be termed the age of “innocence,” the time when the world was as it was intended to be.  Biblically, this covers the material in Genesis 1-3.

The second stage is the age of “responsibility,” or the actual world, precipitated by the fall.  This is the time in which we now live.  Biblically, this covers Genesis 4-Revelation 19.

The final stage is the stage of “fulfillment,” or what is going to be.  Biblically, this is contained for us in Revelation 20-22.

If you were to draw this out, it might look something like this:

Any number of important conversations – and observations – could be made about culture from this understanding.  Let’s consider just one:  the human condition, and specifically, the condition of the Christ follower living in a fallen culture.  Let’s focus on a single question about that condition: 

Are we immoral people who do not wish to be moral, or is it that we are just not able?

We speak lightly of Daniel’s model behind cultural lines in Babylon, or of other cultural subversives such as Joseph or Esther.  There is also Christ’s clear call to be salt and light, and all those metaphors hold.  But for many, this leaves unexplored our frequent struggle to exhibit Christ in our own day.  We get the examples; what we seem to lack is the ability.

It would be easy to dismiss issues of obedience in light of a fatalistic understanding of our proclivity toward sin.  No one dares build a theology around the idea of “I couldn’t help myself,” but we would like to.  There is a thin line between the inevitability of sin in our lives (which we can build a theology around), and a fatalism that dismisses failure with a wink of the eye. 

This was the basis for one of the greatest theological debates in the history of Christendom, involving none other than the church father Augustine and a British monk teaching in Rome by the name of Pelagius.

Pelagius was a moralist.  He was deeply concerned that people live good and moral lives.  He believed that an overly harsh view of human nature, including a belief in total depravity and inevitability of sin, was counter-productive.  If people are told that they cannot help but sin, how can that encourage a moral life? 

Indeed, to Pelagius, the idea of inherent immorality (original sin), removed the motivation to even try.  So Pelagius emphasized that we do not enter the world biased toward evil, and that through human freedom, we have the ability to choose the good and moral life.  Unfortunately, he did this to such a degree that he taught that humans could be free of any influence whatsoever from the fall and that holiness could be achieved by effort alone.  Following his thought to its logical end, Pelagius taught that humans could merit salvation - on their own - by perfectly fulfilling God’s commands without sinning. 

Pelagianism was condemned as heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431. 

Yet on the way to being condemned, Pelagius did force thinkers such as Augustine – and through Augustine, the church - to sharpen up the dynamics of the tension between our orientation toward sin and our call to obey the will of God. 

While agreeing with Pelagius that the image of God in human beings was not entirely lost when cast from Eden, Augustine maintained that we had lost the ability not to sin.  Augustine saw the history of the human will in three stages to which he gave succinct Latin titles: 

First, before the fall, we were posse non peccari et mori (able not to sin and die).  This was the age of innocence. 

After the fall, we found ourselves non posse non peccari et mori (not able not to sin and die).  This is the age of responsibility. 

Yet one day we will be in heaven, where we will be non posse peccari et mori (not able to sin and die), which will be the age of fulfillment.

Returning to our little sketch, we would fold in Augustine’s titles in this way:

One of Augustine’s famous analogies was that of a set of balances, or scales.  One pan represented good, and the other evil.  Properly balanced, someone could weigh the pros and cons of doing good over and against doing evil, and make a choice.  But Augustine argued that the scales are not balanced, but tipped decisively toward evil.  The scales still work, but they are seriously prejudiced through the fall of humanity as passed on through Adam.  As a result, human beings are now prone to wrongdoing.

Yet Augustine felt the sting of Pelagius’ concern.  If we are unable to avoid sin, does this make our struggle to obey the will of God an exercise in futility?  The controversy pushed the great thinker to refine his reflections on grace and its relationship to obedience and perfection.  Augustine had long seen grace as the liberating force that would set the human will free from its bondage to sin.  Grace tips the scales back and allows a person to choose that which is moral and good. 

Augustine thus maintained that this grace is prevenient – meaning it “goes ahead”, or is prior to our conversion and sanctification, thus preparing the will to choose good.  It is also operative, meaning that it “operates” on us independent of anything we do, for the purpose of salvation.  Finally, it is cooperative, meaning that once we become a Christian, we are able to cooperate with grace in our life to achieve growth in holiness.

That is, if we want to cooperate.  The reality of life as a Christ-follower is the pull between our inherently carnal nature and the inclination afforded us to pursue the will of God through cooperative grace.  “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes,” writes Brennan Manning. 

“I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty.  I am trusting and suspicious.  I am honest and I still play games.  Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

And so are we all. 

Yet this explains one of the great tensions between the church and culture.  So as we explore culture and how best to redeem, restore and renew it for Christ, let us not forget the great stage upon which this drama is unfolding and its inherent tension:  we are not able not to sin and die, but we are able to choose.

And that’s worth throwing into the mix with all of our sociological musings.

James Emery White


For a helpful introduction to the theology of Augustine, see the two Library of Christian Classic editions of his works, Augustine: Earlier Writings, edited by J.H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, MCMLIII), and Augustine: Later Works, edited by John Burnaby (Philadelphia: Westminster, MCMLV).  On the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, one would be hard pressed to find a better exploration than given by Jaroslav Pelikan in the first volume of his monumental history of the development of doctrine, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), pp. 307-318.

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1990).

This conversation is explored further in the author’s Wrestling with God (InterVarsity Press).


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.