Cultural Sanctification and Christian Higher Education

Cultural Sanctification and Christian Higher Education

Spring 2024

Nathan A. Finn

Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church offers a timely exploration of Christian engagement within a post-Christian context. In the book, Stephen O. Presley, Ph.D., Senior Fellow for Religion and Public Life at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, advocates for a nuanced approach to cultural engagement, promoting a model of cultural sanctification which, rather than retreating, warring, or accommodating, encourages Christians to engage with their culture in a manner that pursues sanctification while acknowledging the intrinsic forms and features of their contemporary environment.

In his review, Nathan A. Finn, Ph.D., underscores the book’s significant contribution to understanding Christian cultural engagement in a time marked by profound ethical shifts and the erosion of traditional Christian values. Finn evaluates the implications of Presley’s book for Christian higher education and broader societal engagement.

In the contemporary West, public perception of Christianity has declined significantly over the past generation. Many people, including a growing number of cultural elites, believe Christianity is both intellectually deficient and morally bankrupt. Ethical sensibilities, once shaped deeply by Christian virtues, increasingly lack grounding beyond individual preference. Concerns about politically engaged Christians are legion, especially those who affirm traditionalist positions on contested ethical issues.

Patristics scholar Stephen Presley, a 2001 graduate of Baylor University (Waco, TX), believes Christendom has ended and the West is now post-Christian in its sensibilities. But that is only half the story. The post-Christian world, increasingly divested of Christian cultural influence, echoes the pre-Constantinian world, before such influence was normative. Thus, the challenge facing Christians today isn’t modernist religious skepticism but rather postmodern neo-paganism.

In response to neo-paganism, some Christians advocate cultural retreat and others focus upon cultural warfare, while still others simply accommodate cultural shifts. In his new book Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church (Eerdmans, 2024), Presley commends a model that combines the posture of the pre-Christendom church with the insights of missiologist Andrew Walls. Presley argues, “Cultural sanctification recognizes that Christians are necessarily embedded within their culture and must seek sanctification (both personal and corporate) in a way that draws upon the forms and features of their environment by pursuing virtue” (12).

Presley doesn’t argue for a nostalgic reappropriation of Patristic Christianity, but rather a contextual application of ancient Christian priorities. Unlike the pre-Constantine church, we must contend with the legacy of Christendom. This begins with both grieving the decline of Christian influence in the public square as well as lamenting the many sins and shortcomings associated with Christendom. We must also recognize that, even as we’ve lost ground culturally, we are still blessed with many freedoms — often rooted in Christian reasoning — that the early church never experienced.

Presley commends five postures that characterized the early church. First, he calls for a recommitment to cultivating a Christian identity through the means of a more robust (and perhaps extended) process of conversion, a commitment to catechesis, and the importance of liturgy. Presley believes the contemporary church should recover an emphasis on the Rule of Faith to reinforce sound doctrine and the Way of Life to promote Christian virtue. Irenaeus and the Didache are held up as exemplars of this posture.

Second, he recommends a rethinking of Christian political theology in line with the early church. This includes three core assumptions: “a firm conviction in divine transcendence and providence, a belief that God granted political authority to certain earthly rulers, and an active citizenship that proceeded from political dualism” (58). Our devotion to God matters more than our programs for cultural transformation, and thus should be at the heart of our political witness. Polycarp, Clement, Tertullian, and the Epistle to Diognetus serve as role models for this posture.

Presley next commends the early church’s understanding of public theology, which originated from a position of cultural weakness and focused upon apologetics and ultimately evangelism. Patristic intellectuals such as Justin Martyr and especially Origen critiqued pagan philosophy and ethics, defended the uniqueness of the Christian gospel, and demonstrated how the latter was morally praiseworthy and contributed to authentic human flourishing. Apologists appealed to unbelieving minds in order to till the soil of unregenerate hearts.

The public life of the early church evidenced in their ethics and activities comprises a fourth aspect of cultural sanctification. Upon baptism, believers had to learn to navigate the pagan world while pursuing personal holiness and devotion to Christ. According to Presley, “They had to undertake a process of resocialization, cultivating a cultural discernment in every aspect of their own spiritual lives” (116). This is where Andrew Walls’s pilgrim principle is on full display as Christians practiced personal ethics committed to personal separation from sinful patterns embedded in the culture while also pursuing a social ethics that benefited their pagan neighbors. To use a more modern phrase, the early church was a counterculture for the common good.

The final posture Presley highlights is the virtue of hope, which was rooted in a kingdom eschatology. Hope was especially important in times of persecution and martyrdom. Early believers emphasized two themes. First was salvation history, wherein they found their own stories to be in continuity with the grand narrative of scripture.

“Cultural Sanctification offers a compelling vision for Christian cultural engagement during a post-Christian era. It avoids the compromises of cultural accommodation, the quietism of cultural retreat, and the pugilism of cultural warfare models.” — NATHAN A. FINN


The second theme was “resurrection and the blessed life that the faithful resurrected would enjoy” (149). Through it all, the early church recognized that present faithfulness anticipated future flourishing, following the return of Christ, the new creation, and eternal life in the presence of God.

Cultural Sanctification offers a compelling vision for Christian cultural engagement during a post-Christian era. It avoids the compromises of cultural accommodation, the quietism of cultural retreat, and the pugilism of cultural warfare models. Yet, it also leaves room to acknowledge the presence of common grace in neo-pagan culture, the importance of discerning separation from pagan practices and priorities, and the importance of offering a prophetic critique of pagan worldviews and ethics. While we shouldn’t abandon the best insights of our respective ecclesial traditions when it comes to the intersection of faith and culture, it’s helpful to also retrieve pre-Christendom voices (as well as anti-Christendom voices, such as the Anabaptists). The Christian intellectual tradition is expansive and diverse, and every part of it belongs to the wider body of Christ.

Christian colleges and universities are in a unique position to embrace the cultural sanctification model as an extension of our respective missions. Presley’s five Patristic postures could be incorporated into existing frameworks of faith-learning integration. The pre-Christendom sensibilities of the cultural sanctification model lend themselves to fruitful dialog with different confessional contexts and ecclesial traditions. The emphasis on human flourishing also intersects with a promising conversation already underway within the Christian academy. For all these reasons, Cultural Sanctification would make an excellent choice for either faculty reading groups or upper-level courses on faith and culture.

STEPHEN O. PRESLEY is senior fellow for religion and public life at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy and associate professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the author of The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons as well as numerous articles and essays that look to retrieve ancient wisdom for modern Christians.

NATHAN A. FINN is professor of faith and culture at North Greenville University, where he also directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership. He serves as co-editor of Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning, is a book review editor for Christian Higher Education, and is a senior fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.