Common Grace in Neocalvinism: A Departure From the Thought of John Calvin – part 2

Returning to Calvin’s acknowledgement of natural law, Helm is once again helpful. He argues that common grace, á la Bavinck et al. is wrongly polarized from natural law, in believing that Calvin eschewed natural law and embraced common grace.[1] Ultimately, this derives from a misunderstanding of Aquinas on nature. Unfortunately, Bavinck is not the only thinker within Neo-Calvinism to interpret Aquinas this way. Neo-Calvinist, philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd is also highly critical of the configuration of nature and grace in Aquinas’ thought. What motivates Dooyeweerd’s criticism of Aquinas’ view of nature and grace is an aversion to dualism. Dooyeweerd holds that Aquinas’ assertion of a state of happiness attainable by humankind from within the realm of a self-contained, autonomous nature ultimately leads to the modern humanistic idea that happiness is an entirely earthly pursuit. Yet concerning such dualism, it is not the sum of realities figured in and of themselves that Dooyeweerd rejects, rather it is the implications for those who appropriate conceptions of a self-contained order. Aquinas’ division of nature and grace is to Dooyeweerd a disparagement of the constitutive integrity of human nature itself; comprising both natural and revealed orientations of the knowledge of God. Furthermore, Dooyeweerd states that according to Aquinas “this human ‘nature,’ which is guided by the natural light of reason, was not corrupted by sin and thus also does not need to be restored by Christ. Human nature is only ‘weakened’ by the fall.”[2] Moreover, one can observe that such a reading of Aquinas does not take into account the nuance and particularity with which he articulated his natural theology. Thus, Neo-Calvinists such as Kuyper, Bavinck and Dooyeweerd step cautiously around, it seems, any mention of natural law in Calvin for fear of its signified proximity to Aquinas. But what they should realize is Calvin’s understanding of natural law is much the same as Aquinas. For instance, Aquinas states, “. . . nothing can satisfy man’s will except such goodness, which is found, not in anything created, but in God alone. Everything created is a derivative good. He alone, who fills with all good things thy desire, can satisfy our will, and therefore in him alone our happiness lies.”[3]

Furthermore, an important distinction is made by Aquinas concerning the state of nature after the Fall, Aquinas says that though a person’s ultimate end does not change because of the fall into sin, his relation to that end does undergoes a fundamental change. Nevertheless, as Arvin Vos states, some Protestants will still be unsatisfied. “They will point out that Aquinas speaks of a happiness that is proportionate to nature, and they execrate the very distinction between that which is in accord with nature and which is beyond it. Even Aquinas’s insistence that nature is from God and therefore not autonomous in the sense of being self-sufficient is not enough for them.”[4]

Certainly there are those within the neo-Calvinist fold that have reified Aquinas’ theological method by asserting the Theologian bifurcates nature and grace, supposing that grace is a mere addition to the natural realm that ‘sits atop’ nature not affecting it in any substantive manner. Naturally, this has rendered some Neo-Calvinists blind to Calvin’s frequent attention to natural law. However, this polarizing of nature and grace in Aquinas is not common to all Neo-Calvinists. One ought not exclude critically robust analysis from other key thinkers within Neo-Calvinism. It is such analysis that can act as a corrective when Neo-Calvinists depart to great a distance from Calvin’s theology. It is precisely this antithesis between nature and grace that Klaas Schilder, the most prominent theologian of Dutch Calvinism since Kuyper, repudiates. For instance, Schilder states that the existence of culture should not be attributed to common grace but rather proceeds as a natural process; “the result of an inherent power in man given by God with creation.”[5] Schilder alternatively posits the antithesis in culture between faith and unbelief as opposed to between nature and grace. Schilder states:

There is indeed ‘common grace’ in culture (grace for more than one person). But there is no universal (or general) grace for all men. Therefore Abraham Kuyper’s construction was wrong . . . There is a common (not: universal) grace in culture, as far as the redeeming work of Christ is shared by all those who are His – which grace has an effect upon their cultural achievements.[6]

 

Is it possible that critics of Neo-Calvinist’ common grace overplay the polarizing of nature and grace? As Helm said about Calvin, that there was no antithesis between nature and common grace, likewise Van Til states, there is no antithesis between nature and grace.[7] Van Til identifies himself with the Neo-Calvinist fold and yet he does not polarize nature from grace at all. Similarly, it seems Bavinck would agree with Schilder, though differing on the scope of common grace. Bavinck states, “As the gathering of believers, the church is itself used by Christ as an instrument to bring others to his fold. By it Christ administers his mediatorial office in the midst of the world.”[8] Bavinck’s mention of ‘the world’ is salient. One would be remiss to understand him as totalizing common grace to the redemptive consummation of the world. On the contrary, Bavinck is heard here giving a thoroughly Christological account of the Church’s role in redemption.

But the question remains, why do many Neo-Calvinists such as Kuyper and Bavinck emphasize common grace at the expense of natural law? One response would be that these theologians admit distrust in the noetic effect of sin on the mind’s ability to reason grace from the natural order. Therefore Kuyper and Bavinck appear timid in approaching reason as a catalyst for Christian engagement in culture. Although, what appears to be actively at work amongst Neo-Calvinists is a deep-seated need to locate unmediated relation of the natural order with the eternal Godhead; any created system, governed by self-contained laws cannot give glory in as direct fashion as if completely enveloped in God’s sustaining providence. Thus, the apprehension with natural order and law, existing independently of other causes impels such thinkers as Kuyper and Bavinck to sublimate natural law into the arena of divine action á la common grace. Neo-Calvinists fear that under Aquinas’ configuration of nature and grace, grace is rendered superfluous since the natural order has all it needs to exist. However, without a doubt, Calvin did not depart, at least not in common direction on this matter, with Aquinas. He utilized the distinction between the natural and supernatural and maintained ample capacity to attribute both domains to the sovereign glory of God.



  [1] Calvin’s Ideas, 382.

  [2] Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1979), 116-17.

  [3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Vol. 1a QQ. 1-119.trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Maryland: Christians Classics, 1981), 2ae. 2, 8.

  [4] Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 149-50.

  [5] Van Til, Calvinistic Concept, 140.

  [6] Klaas Schilder, Christ and Culture, trans. G. van Rongen and Helder, W. (Winnipeg: Premier Printing LTD., 1977), 47.

  [7] Calvinistic Concept, 58.

  [8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 329-30.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Volume 1a QQ. 1-119.Translated by Fathers of

the English Dominican Province. Westminster, Maryland: Christians Classics, 1981.

 

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vriend. Grand

Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

 

Calvin, John. A Commentary on Genesis. Translated and edited by John King. London:

The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.

 

Dooyeweerd, Herman. Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options.

Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1979.

 

Haas, Guenther H. The Concept of Equity in Calvin’s Ethics. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier

University Press, 1997.

 

Helm, Paul. John Calvin’s Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Heslam, Peter S. Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on

Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

 

Kuiper, Herman. Calvin on Common Grace. Grand Rapids: Smitter Book Company, 1928.

 

Kuyper, Abraham. Calvinism: Six Stone Foundation Lectures. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1943.

 

Vos, Arvin. Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of

Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985.

 

Schilder, Klaas. Christ and Culture. Translated by G. van Rongen and W. Helder.

Winnipeg: Premier Printing LTD., 1977.

 

Schreiner, Susan E. The Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the

Thought of John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.

 

VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: a Biblical Vision for Christianity

and Culture. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Publishing, 2010.

 

Van Til, Henry R. The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

Company, 1959.

Common Grace in Neocalvinism: A Departure From the Thought of John Calvin – part 1

Of the theological offspring to have come from the Reformation theology of John Calvin, the Dutch Neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck has attracted the most complex and contemporary dialogue about what Calvinism means to culture in the 21st century post-Christian world. While Neo-Calvinists have queried how to express faithful devotion to the preserving, encouraging and advancing of human cultural flourishing, several scholars and commentators of Calvin have questioned the premise of Neo-Calvinism’s cultural mandate. At issue are the doctrines of common grace and natural law; in Calvin primarily and subsequently in Kuyper and Bavinck,[1] as well as others within Neo-Calvinism.

The following inquiry will locate and investigate the notions of common grace and natural law in Calvin whilst explicating how Kuyper, Bavinck et al. misappropriate the former in large part because of the erroneous antithesis between nature and grace attributed to Thomas Aquinas. As will be shown, this reticence to acknowledge the continuity of natural law from Aquinas through Calvin has contributed to an understanding of common grace within Neo-Calvinism that is ultimately incongruous with Calvin’s theology. However, it is this author’s aim to complicate this claim in order to problematize the broader Calvinian discourse regarding common grace. Thus, the following critique has in mind both adherents of Kuyper and Bavinck’s common grace as well as its critics.

Neo-Calvinism surely represents certain departures from Calvin’s theology yet it is without question that Neo-Calvinists seek the call of the Christian to steward cultural activities with God-honoring worship in the manner of Christ. Admittedly Kuyper goes beyond what is erudite in Scripture when he speculates about common grace being the raison d’être of culture. This inquiry seeks to ask and answer: why was this so? And further; in what way is the Neo-Calvinist articulation of common grace helpful or harmful to the Christian cultural mandate?

In exploring Kuyper and Bavinck’s departure from Calvin’s conception of common grace, a review of the notion in Calvin is necessary to ascertain the manner in which Neo-Calvinists arrive at a theological formulation of cultural transformation. Paul Helm notes that the phrase ‘common grace’ is absent in Calvin, though he does make reference to the “general grace of God.”[2] Helm further states that while one would be hard pressed to find any succinct and monolithic notion of common grace in Calvin, he indeed refers to instances of God’s restraining and enriching goodness as both ‘general grace’ and ‘special graces.’[3] Indeed, it is God’s goodness wherein such Calvinists as H. Kuiper (not to be confused with Abraham Kuyper) locate the doctrine of common grace. Kuiper states:

We do not intend, however, to confine ourselves to those deliverances of Calvin in which the word grace occurs in the sense of common grace. In order to do justice to our subject we must also take into consideration those statements in which Calvin employs synonyms of grace such as goodness, kindness, liberality, benignity, beneficence, love, mercy, clemency, goodwill and favor. All such words when applied to the relation of God to sinners imply that God shows sinners gratuitous, unmerited, forfeited favor – and this is grace.[4]

 

Helm, while doubtful of a concise expression of common grace in Calvin that would warrant such particular emphasis, rather, observes that references to natural law are plentiful. Helm says:

. . . for the most part when Calvin is referring to equity and natural law he is talking about structures, usually ethical and political structures. By contrast, his references to ‘common grace’ and equivalent expressions are references to gifts, usually to gifts to individuals or to classes of individuals, though not exclusively so; sometimes gifts given to almost the entire race.[5]

 

According to Helm, Bavinck and other Neo-Calvinists misinterpret common grace in Calvin. While Calvin mentions common grace, he also emphasizes natural law[6]. Bavinck de-emphasizes natural law, despite Calvin’s positive attitude towards it, and instead emphasizes common grace. However, Calvin’s attitude to natural law simply follows the medieval theology before him, specifically Thomism. Comparing conceptions of Aquinas and Calvin on natural law, Helm argues that in ontological status and application, natural law is understood similarly by Aquinas and Calvin, however the two differ considerably on natural law’s epistemological status.[7] Nevertheless, what is crucial in understanding Calvin’s theology is “he himself shows no signs of making a sharp antithesis between ‘nature’ and ‘common grace’. Thus natural law and the sense of equity on which it is based are the gifts of God. They are not untouched by the Fall, nevertheless their continued efficacy is the result of God’s goodness undeserved by its recipients.”[8]

One might wonder then how Kuyper, for instance, derives such prominent emphasis on common grace from Calvin? Perhaps it is by certain interpretation of passages like the following: “Had God not so spared us, our revolt would have carried along with it the entire destruction of nature.”[9] Is this where Kuyper comes to believe that without common grace the world would have returned to the void because of the wrath of God, and man would have died a physical as well as spiritual death? Perhaps, although it is important to note the variety of voices in the line of Kuyper that provide resonant pushback to this notion. Henry Van Til asserts that Kuyper goes too far here into dangerous speculation.[10] But does he? Kuyper seems only to echo Calvin when the latter states “ . . . as soon as the Lord takes away his Spirit all things return to their dust and vanish away.”[11] Case in point: if Calvin’s conception of the order of nature consisted not of hierarchy but rather stability, regularity and continuity with the rest of creation as Susan Schreiner contends in her book on natural order in the thought of John Calvin,[12] then one might envisage Calvin regarding God as upholding the cosmos with common grace. Furthermore, Calvin marvels at the exquisite form and function of the stars. He stands amazed that in all their stir and furor the heavenly bodies do not seer holes in the sky, spelling danger and calamity, but rather leave visible traces of God’s glory. One might imagine Calvin contemplating the ever-dawning miracle of this sustaining grace in all its gratuitousness thinking of it as common grace, for those made in the image of God.[13]



  [1] The following inquiry seeks critical explication of both theologians’ views without conflating them. Schilder stipulates that Kuyper and Bavinck differ significantly in how they make assertions for common grace, with the former emphasizing antithesis and the latter emphasizing creational goodness. Christ and Culture, trans. G. van Rongen and Helder, W. (Winnipeg: Premier Printing LTD., 1977).

  [2] John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 384.; 168, The following passages from John Calvin are taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008).

  [3] Ibid., 180; This is affirmed by Peter Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 178. He states, “Calvin did not, however, propound the concept of common grace in the systematic, principled way that is found in Kuyper’s work, and sometimes he expressed the same idea simply by speaking of God’s providence, kindness, mercy, and gentleness, and of his grace to all and to few.”

  [4] Herman Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Smitter Book Company, 1928), 3.

  [5] Calvin’s Ideas, 388. Helm’s point is fair and critically accurate. In fact, Kuyper can be seen identifying the magistrate as an instrument of “common grace,” contra Calvin, in his Six Stone Foundation Lectures, “Calvinism and Politics” (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1943), 82.

  [6] Institutes, 171. Calvin’s definition of natural law: “that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their testimony.”

  [7] Calvin’s Ideas, 373. Helm further states, “For Aquinas the revelation of the Decalogue complements the natural law which is recognizable by all. For Calvin, though those without benefit of special revelation know that there is a natural law and have some sense of its content, nevertheless what that moral law is can as a result of the Fall only be known clearly through a reasoned understanding of special revelation.”

  [8] Ibid., 383.

  [9] Calvin, Institutes, 168.

  [10] The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1959), 134.

  [11] Here Calvin interprets Gen 1:2 with appeal to Ps. 104:29. A Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 74.

  [12] Susan E Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 22.

  [13] Institutes, 101-2.

Does ‘Jesus is Lord’ Translate Today?

A couple months ago I did some reading on postmodernism or on as John Stackhouse refers to ‘hyper-modernism’ with the aim of understanding the moderate evangelical understanding and response of the current cultural landscape. Several mainline Liberal authors or Emergent leaders have weighed in on the repercussions of postmodernity over the years but I wanted to learn something of the history of thought leading up to this cultural shift in North America, hence the following two articles by Craig M. Gay and John G. Stackhouse.

In The Way of the (Modern) World, Gay investigates the conditions and causes by which modern society has and is becoming increasingly secular and practically atheistic. Within the central orientation of modern structures, values and thinking, exists the implicit organizing principle that God, if he exists, is superfluous to lived human experience.[1] The New Testament, contrastingly, defines and treats “the world” and “worldliness” as attempting to explain human affairs apart from the reality of God. Three impulsive themes of the modern world are control, secularity and anxiety. These result, in large part, because of Christianity’s banishment and the subsequent dehumanization of personhood. Gay, contends that to uncover the deeply embedded secularity and atheism in our society is to begin to understand why we willfully construct a world without God in it.

Stackhouse, in order to explicate postmodernity and postmodernism(s), distinguishes the former from the latter by describing it as a condition to which the latter is a response.[2] Modern thinking, concerned with apprehending truth, is not a significant departure from premodern thinking, save its focus on locating new understanding to better navigate the future. Premodern thinking, conversely, looks to the past to establish current knowledge. Within Postmodernity, the confidence that knowledge is accessible to all is not present, instead it is widely held that human thinking is perspectival and subject to, both, the point of view and the viewer herself. The outworking of such thinking is represented in our current notions of pluralism and multiculturalism, wherein the intended acknowledgment of multiple vantage points have resulted in a multiplicity of perspectives that can fragment rather than unify through diversity.

A natural question then, how would one currently characterize the relationship between Christianity and contemporary culture? And: what, if anything, is to be done about it?

The Christian faith finds itself, presently, as one proposal in the marketplace of ideas. While its place in the past can be understood chiefly as one of considerable power and influence over contemporary culture, it has undergone something of a shift to a playing field that is, so we are told, plum level.

Whether our current modern/postmodern society is truly open and ensuring the equality of all thought and perspective is doubtful. As Gay asserts, there is a practical atheism that punctuates our way of life, meanwhile implicitly promising what it cannot deliver. Christianity has had an ironic part in determining its current habitation.[3] While upstanding citizens efforted a new and better world for all humans influenced in large part by the Christian view of personhood, God was overlooked.

The relationship between Christianity and culture can, as Stackhouse argues, no longer be defined by dominance. On the contrary, I believe that Christianity today must give up any reverie of possessing power over culture and return to its latent power-to posture, an undeniably effective standpoint from where we can lean back against the work of the Holy Spirit; active from age to age, embody true humanness and collaborate with the mission of God.

In the advent of increasing secularization and bewildering pluralism, it is not enough for Christianity to define itself over-and-against the multitude of perspectives within postmodernity. Granted, ‘Jesus is Lord’ has signified a dangerous form of criticism in the past, however, to contemporary culture today, it is nonsense. This declaration must ring new with assertive hope, given as confession and perhaps then heard, as if, for the first time.


  [1] Introduction in The Way of the (Modern) World, pp. 1-28.

  [2] “Postmodernity and Postmodernism(s)” in Humble Apologetics, pp. 22-37.

  [3] See Os Guinness’ “Gravedigger Hypothesis”.

Baruch Spinoza

Harrisville and Sundberg, in “Baruch Spinoza: The Emergence of Rationalist Biblical Criticism,” outline the momentous changes brought about in the development of Rationalist Biblical Criticism, namely the historical criticism employed by Spinoza in the mid 17th century.

From the outworking of the Reformation came the expectation, saddled on common readers of scripture, to interpret and discern the truth of scripture so as to snap out of the unquestioned superstitions of Medieval Catholicism. This proved difficult to most people without the tethers of the Clergy to guide them. As a result, the humanist concern with the temporal significance of political governance became a manner in which earthly existence gained greater import.

Spinoza typified this approach; his colored company of cosmopolitan and capitalist cohorts revealed his own aims to articulate a theory on liberal democracy and modern biblical criticism. Spinoza believed that much of Jewish and Christian religion comprised superstition and dogma and only by submitting scriptural text to the employs of reason and historical analysis could one free truth as contained in the true virtues of obedience to God in justice and charity.

Essential identities in Philosophy and Theology

My background is in philosophy (full disclosure) but I’ve only begun to read and engage with non-reductive materialism and radical orthodoxy. I found your paper captured many of my intuitions about the relationship herein.

Where I would disagree with Milbank, and in fact a host of continental philosophers is that all is philosophy, even the narrowest of medieval Christian orthodoxy is philosophy. Theology is thought, neither more scared nor profane than continental thought. Radical theology has to buy what it is selling and move away from such preoccupations with identity. If all the categorizations of the world are subject to sacramental participation then why distinguish, John, between the Queen and her magistrate philosophy? It seems RO’s totalizing view is not internally consistent.

But philosophy cannot deny its place of birth either. For instance, as much as I wish my birth certificate says I was born in Vancouver (speaking of vain identity ;/), it simply does not reflect my wish. It’s an empirical fact; I was born in New Westminster. So western philosophy must come to grips with it’s humble origins and recognize it’s teleological baggage, western philosophy originated from a babe in a manger.

I think where RO goes sideways and jeopardizes affordance of any self-respect is in the neglect of epistemological skepticism. Why and how one can make such ontological pronouncements as they do, I’ll never know.

I have no problem with RO absorbing the world in its vision (we all do it!), IF the vision were not only of the lamb. The Lion is not in the picture. The ‘history’ and ‘conflict’ as you say Marika, is not invited into this vision. And that’s a shame because ultimately it can only be a fundamentally flawed vision of reality; it is empirically deficient. RO is not robust enough to receive the materialist critique. Rather than confront the unsettling, RO turns it aside as “nihilism”, which sells nihilism short BTW!

Just a few fragmentary thoughts, thanks!

“Stark” Differences Between Christians and Pagans in the Roman Empire

It is one thing to attend and lament, as is popular to do right now, the brute reality of Christian Empire, established and extending from Constantine through centuries of colonialism, but it is an altogether different enquiry to investigate the rise of Christianity amongst the ordinary, everyday people living in tumultuous 1st century Palestine.

How did a fledgling Jewish sect spill outward into nearly every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire, transforming the way people think and behave within only a few hundred years?

Cultural theory has a really hard time with this one.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity argues that the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world occurred within the locus of certain social developments. These different developments entailed prevalent opportunity for Christian witness and expansive conversion. In particular, Stark understands the catastrophic epidemics of 165 and 251 AD as providing the backdrop for Christians to provide a coherent, alternative account of why such catastrophe had occurred.

In addition, the Christian ethos of community care uniquely equipped adherents of the faith to better withstand such disasters, contributing to greater resiliency in surviving the disease. This, in turn, influenced a shift in the social landscape as pagans replaced their interpersonal bonds, decimated by increasing pagan mortality, with new attachments to Christian social networks, thus increasing the probability of conversion to the faith.

Stark also argues that the higher status of women in Christian subculture represents another factor in Christianity’s rise. As a result of greater domestic egalitarianism, social desirability of widowhood, a higher fertility rate and the prohibition of infanticide and abortion in Christian subculture, a significant difference in the male-female sex ratio developed wherein greater numbers of women contributed to a higher fertility rate and a rapidly growing Christian population.

Attending to the efficacy of Christian doctrine to bring about major numerical growth and social impact in the Greco-Roman world, Stark contends that Christian right practice represents the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity. The introduction of a merciful God exhorting people to deal in mercy with one another revolutionized 1st century human experience and offered a coherent ethic wherein ethnicity or social status could be disposed of, giving place to a new rule of love.[1]

How did the lifestyle and values of Christians in the first few centuries differ from the Greco-Roman culture around them? In what way were they actually similar?

The lifestyle and values of Christians living in the first few centuries are enigmatic yet defined. While the identity of Christians can be described by distinctive custom, practices and, in greater detail, ethic, they were also members of a shared Greco-Roman culture. In this way there was nothing eccentric about them. The paraphernalia of culture, represented by food, clothing and language among other aspects, was for the Christian and pagan quite similar.

In matters of major difference from their fellow pagans, Christians did not worship the Emperor and as a result saw their activity in various civic customs as minimal. It can be said that Christians’ loyalty was to the empire but their devotion was unto God.

Furthermore, it was God who Christians sought to imitate. In doing so, pagan, or more broadly, Roman values and practices such as infanticide, abortion, denigrated status of women and male sexual promiscuity were condemned and prohibited by Christians. For instance, Christians possessed a substantively different view of women than their pagan counterparts. Herein, Christian doctrine actively contributed to the better treatment of women in Greco-Roman society. In addition to injunctions to care for wives and widows, the Christian value of community care resulted in a higher degree of solidarity within Christian subculture. Such solidarity and ‘love for neighbour’ distinguished Christians from others and indeed as Stark argues, imbued them with affective resiliency in the face of epidemic disease.

Pfft…there goes the sociological neighborhood!



  [1] Rodney Stark, Chapter 4: “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion”, Chapter 5: “The Role of Women in Christian Growth”, and Chapter 10: “A Brief Reflection on Virtue” in The Rise of Christianity, pp. 73-128, 209-215.