A Critique of Plowing in Hope, by David Bruce Hegeman
With the growing interest in a biblical theology of culture have come two irreconcilable theories. The one salient fact with which all must deal is that Biblical culture was agrarian — and ours is not. There are only two alternative explanations of this fact.
Modernists (in the broad sense — I am not talking about theological liberals only, but anti-traditionalists of every stripe) explain this basic fact by ignoring the well-documented history of greed and the lust for power that shaped our modern world, and by claiming that the biblical agrarian culture was inferior to our own. They hold to a form of cultural evolution which assumes (but never proves) that the culture of the technological society is intrinsically superior to biblical agrarian culture. This seems self-evident to them, I think, because they share many or most of its ultimate values.
Biblical Agrarians, on the other hand, claim that our technological society is apostate and culturally degenerate, and that redemptive history will move us toward the goal of a restoration and perfection of the original decentralized agrarian social order, in which godly culture will flourish. These two theories are diametrically opposed.
Yet, a book from Doug Wilson’s publishing house, Canon Press, called Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture, by David Bruce Hegeman seeks to reconcile the two. This is a useful book, for it gathers together most of the data of Scripture that must be systematized in order to answer the question, “What is the biblical concept of culture?” It makes the fatal mistake, however of attempting to steer a middle course between the two opposite theories. This is appealing to those who want the best of both worlds, but it cannot be done with intellectual integrity. And Hegeman clearly wants what he sees as the best of both worlds. He wants the technology of the industrialized world without the pollution, the vice, the waste, the corruption, the warfare, the destruction of life that has always gone hand in hand with it. He wants a predominately urban civilization without the agglomeration of wealth and power that have always motivated it. He wants the beauty of a garden and the peace of the rural countryside without the mass of men living by subsistence farming. This is nothing but confusion.
The False Assumption of Cultural Evolution
One of the contributions to modern thought made by the philosophers of the enlightenment is the inevitability of progress. Another is cultural relativism. These are the two ingredients of the theory of cultural evolution. It is a curious thing to see a Christian who says that he deplores the influence of the Enlightenment employing its premises to argue against distinctively Christian ideas; but that is just what we see in this book. Whereas the Bible teaches that mankind began in a state of perfection, fell from it, and is now being progressively restored to that original perfection, Enlightenment thinkers say that man began as a brute, and is struggling upward out of chaos into order. What the final perfection of man (if there can be such a thing on evolutionary premises) will be, no one can know. We couldn’t understand it if we did know. For it has no precedent in history.
By contrast, the Bible shows us just what we are to become, at least what the sanctification that takes place in this life has as its goal and standard. The plan is God’s righteous law, and the living fulfilment of the law is Jesus Christ the righteous. Perfection is not something that has never yet been realized. The world as created was perfect. The original happiness of mankind was perfect. The Law of the Lord is perfect. Jesus Christ is its perfect embodiment. The restoration of the original perfection is the goal of history.
But Hegeman’s idea of culture is evolutionary. The perfection he envisages for the world is something wholly new, and undefined. While the practical utility of traditional agrarian economics and politics are on record in Scripture and in history; the socio-economic basis and political structure of Hegeman’s conception remains a matter of speculation. Many agrarian societies have functioned well (making allowances for human sin) for thousands of years. No alternative has ever succeeded in producing an environment more wholesome and congenial to human beings.
The technological society is a murderous one. Never has man caused the death of man on such a massive scale as in the last century, when technological advancement was accelerating as never before. Massive wars fought with horrible new weapons, persecutions, genocides, repressions, abortions, murders, and man-made health hazards have accounted for the deaths of tens of millions. We can only expect the number of killings to continue upward, as we continue to move ever farther from the godly way of life from which we have long ago departed.
Confusion about Cultural Progress: Eden and the New Jerusalem
Hegeman makes the assumption that culture advances from the primitive, represented by the garden of Eden, toward something which he describes as a “garden/city”. He sees the city as the ultimate goal toward which human progress must strive.” The proof of this he finds in the fact that “the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.” (p.31)
My first objection to this construction of the Biblical data is that Scripture makes the clearest distinction between the uncultivated earth that Adam and his progeny were to subdue and the garden that God planted with His own hands! The garden, then, does not represent the primitive, the undeveloped, the uncultured — but exactly the opposite! Eden was the pinnacle of perfection! It was no doubt designed to inspire Adam and Eve with a vision for the creative potential of the rest of the earth that lay outside. Adam was not told to develop the garden, but simply to “keep” it. How could he expect to improve on God’s workmanship? It was the uninhabited lands that he was to cultivate and reclaim, and he would have done so in the light of what had been shown him in the aesthetic perfection of the garden of God.
Furthermore, the author has missed the fact that, while “the garden” was a literal garden in a literal landscape; the New Jerusalem is a symbolic representation of the eschatological church: a spiritual entity, rather than a literal city. I may say without fear of contradiction that this one fact invalidates his entire paradigm. There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that the final state of the redeemed is to be shut up in a giant cube for all eternity. Everything about the description John gives of his final vision is against any literalistic interpretation. Hence it is ludicrous to conclude, as he does, from the description of the city, that there will be architectural structures similar to our modern buildings in the eternal state. There are definite indications in the text that the New Jerusalem is rather intended to picture a restored paradise than a “city” as we moderns understand the term.
What is a City?
A further error lies in the unreflecting equation of the word, “city” in Scripture with the modern city. First, the largest biblical “city” was no more than a town by modern standards, and most were merely villages. There was no biblical city that could compare with the vast, sprawling putrescences of our day. The population of any ancient city could be measured by thousands, rather than millions. But the vast difference in scale is not the only difference. These small villages and towns reflected a traditional agrarian culture, rather than an urban one.
The ancient walled city of the Bible had the most in common with the modern city. It was most often a center of apostasy, a base for imperialism, a treasure-house for plundering tyrants, a monument to human pride, vainglory and rebellion against God, akin to the modern city in spirit — the City of Man. This city provides no ideal for culture, since it is opposed to biblical culture. Like Babel, it has been erected in defiance of God’s design for a decentralized, agrarian civilization.
On the other hand, the ideal of the City of God set forth in God’s word bears no resemblance to the modern city. Ancient Jerusalem was a fit type for the eschatological city of God because it was, first, a center of the true religion. In patriarchal times, it was the realm of Melchizedek, the high priest who was so great in the eyes of God that he was able to bless faithful Abraham. In David’s time, it was the city that God had chosen, to dwell there. In Solomon’s reign, the Temple was constructed, and God Himself approved it. But it was only a type of that “city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Jerusalem means “City of Peace”. It was a castle, a walled fortress, intended to be a place of wealth, of security, of stable order, of community, and of the presence of God. The New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse represents these ideals under a figure. The enormous precious and semi-precious stones of the foundations, the pearly gates, the streets of gold — all suggest virtually unlimited wealth. The cube-shape and the massive foundations represent perfect stability. The tremendous wall represents absolute security. In words reminiscent of Isaiah’s prophecy (54:11), ” O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires,” John describes the beauty and perfection of the foundations of the city. What do these precious stones represent? The doctrine of the apostles (Revelation 21:14). For the city itself is identified as “the bride, the Lamb’s wife”(v. 9,10) . This can be no other than the church, which is the community of the faithful. God himself shall dwell there, with His people forever.
The eschatological City of God, thus understood, is an ideal consistent with agrarianism. During the millennium, a few large centers of spirituality, godly culture, learning, and commerce may develop in the midst of an agricultural civilization composed primarily of thousands of small villages and tens of thousands of farms. These cities will not at all embody the spirit of the city of man, and they will look nothing like the modern city. Instead, they will be Christian communities, pointing to the ideal and perfect community of the redeemed in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
What is the Christian Concept of Culture?
I must also call into question the very idea that “culture” in its most important sense consists chiefly in the refinement of such things as artistic sensibility, good taste and manners, acquaintance with literature, and the like. Even less does it consist in the artifacts of culture. Christian culture, at least, is the culture of Christianity. It is chiefly concerned with spiritual development; and with the natural only to the degree that it serves spiritual interests. Christian piety leads to proper intellectual and aesthetic development. But “high culture”, in the world’s sense of the term, is often accompanied by the lowest spiritual and moral culture. The true high culture, therefore, may exist in the humblest of societies; where there is little opportunity for the literary and artistic pursuits of the leisured class. It is this misconception about what constitutes biblical culture that lies at the root of Hegeman’s negative evaluation of biblical agrarian society, and that explains his efforts to justify, in part, the modern world — in spite of its evident spiritual deficiencies.
Modern man is utterly convinced that life in an agrarian social order must be unbearable; but this only shows how effectively he has been brainwashed by the propaganda of the humanistic elite. There is no evidence that people in agrarian societies were necessarily more miserable than we are. It seems clear that the Israelites who lived under Moses’ agrarian law-order would have enjoyed more freedom, more contact with nature, a stronger family, richer community life, more satisfying labor, greater fertility, and better health than is usual among us. For all these things were promised to those who kept the law. They were the benefits that God designed it to secure!
But we come to the Bible with preconceptions so deeply rooted that we cannot see what is in front of us. We fail to see that the Adamic, patriarchal social order was not just the best he could figure out; but the fruit of great wisdom, eminently suited to provide the structure needed for mankind’s social well-being. We fail to see that the sin of Babel was precisely the sin of our modern world: the refusal to accept the agricultural calling that man was given by God, and the willful pursuit of security, wealth, and power without regard to our Creator’s will. We fail to see that Abraham was not just a holy man, but a man who was holy because he deliberately left the city to serve God as a sheepherder. We fail to see that the law of Moses, if fully obeyed, establishes and maintains an agrarian, rather than an urban civilization; that it assumes throughout the rightness of such a civilization; and that its ethic of love for God and man would be impossible to implement without destroying the foundations of our technological society.
Howard Douglas King, 2004
Revised September 18, 2015