August 15, 2022
When culture and Scripture disagree, who do we side with? Different answers to that question have played out across the centuries in Rome and what this history means for Christians today.
Behind the stone walls which stretched skyward from the pavement where I stood, countless life stories had ended. Those walls had once resounded with the roar of crowds, the clash of steel, and the shouts of gladiators. But the battles fought in Rome’s Colosseum were only shadows of the real warfare in this city. The greater conflict lay in an age-old battle of worldviews, with humans waging a futile—and disastrous—war against their Creator’s infallible Word.
With its significance for the early church, Reformation, and Renaissance, Rome offers a central vantage point from which to understand the worldview battle still raging in Western culture—a battle which extends to the Neo-Marxist ideas storming society today.
To see how Rome’s past offers practical reminders for Christ followers today, let’s take a quick tour through the Western worldview battle in Rome.
Resistance: Early Church vs. Pagan Culture
Follow the flocks of tourists through Rome’s labyrinthine streets, and you’ll find a mammoth monument to paganism: the Pantheon. Given that pan means “all” and theos refers to divinity, you might guess the Pantheon once housed a smorgasbord of idols—and you’d be right. From the “god of cattle worms” to the “goddess of grain mildew,” the Romans worshipped a pantheon of mythic deities. But no idols—not even those hewn from the toughest stone—can provide a solid worldview foundation on which to build a culture. As the famous Christian scholar Francis Shaeffer pointed out,
Like the Greeks, the Romans had no infinite god. This being so, they had no sufficient reference point intellectually; that is, they did not have anything big enough or permanent enough to which to relate either their thinking or their living. Consequently, their value system was not strong enough to bear the strains of life, either individual or political. All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals, values, and final decisions.
As a result, Rome increasingly turned to the worship of more animate idols: emperors. A period called the Great Persecution began as one such emperor, Diocletian, decreed edicts which placed increasing pressure on Christians.
First, Diocletian dismissed soldiers and palace officials who refused to sacrifice to Roman deities. Next, he ordered the removal of Christian texts and church buildings, prohibited Christians from holding services, and restricted Christians’ legal rights. He then issued an edict that spelled imprisonment for clergy members, adding a subsequent edict which granted clergy freedom if they offered Roman sacrifices. Meanwhile, Diocletian’s government found ways to scapegoat Christians for local crises, whether “failed sacrifices” or palace fires. Finally, in AD 304, a universal decree gave Christians an ultimatum: sacrifice or endure punishments, including torture, imprisonment, and death.
Thousands of believers refused to compromise with the Roman government’s unbiblical demands—and faced horrific deaths as a result. But remember, the Christians could have avoided these fates. All they had to do was go along with their culture, blending a Roman worldview with Christianity by adding the worship of local deities to their worship of Jesus. However, that would have meant following man’s word (or human-made religion) as the authority above God’s Word, which says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Where culture and Scripture disagreed, many believers in Rome followed God’s Word on pain of death.
Reformation: The Need for a Return to God’s Word
After Diocletian and his co-emperor resigned, one of the new emperors, Constantine, issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313, granting religious freedom.7 The Christianization of Rome soon began, with the church remaining central to much of Europe’s civil and political life long after the decline of the Roman Empire. But as the centuries unfolded, three related veins of compromise corroded the worldview foundation beneath Western culture’s Christianized veneer:
- Compromise on biblical authority
Instead of accepting God’s Word as their authority for truth, many Christians began viewing human-made teachings and church traditions from outside the Bible as though equal to Scripture. (Part of this problem stemmed from the fact that most Christians could not access God’s Word for themselves—a limitation which Western Christians do not share today, thanks largely to the courage of men, including John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, who translated Scripture in opposition to man’s decrees.)
- Compromise on biblical doctrine
Tolerating the syncretism of man’s word with God’s Word opened the door for Christians to import more and more unbiblical teachings into their beliefs. For instance, people increasingly viewed salvation as a reward for human efforts rather than accepting the Bible’s revelation that salvation is God’s gift of grace made possible through Jesus alone (Ephesians 2:8–9).
- Compromise with pagan philosophy
Along the way, many mainstream believers began incorporating secular teachings into their Christianity. For instance, the prominent theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) emphasized the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle to the point that Aristotle’s teachings became treated as official church doctrine.
Realizing that Western culture’s mainstream religion had drifted alarmingly far from God’s Word, Reformers, including Martin Luther (1483–1546), urged the church to return to its foundation of biblical authority.
Renaissance: Culture Aligns Itself to Man’s Word
In the years between Aquinas and Luther, Western culture’s renewed emphasis on pagan Greece and Rome gave way to a full-blown revival of classical philosophy—a shift known as the Renaissance, named after the French term for “rebirth.” Following the teachings of Aristotle, Renaissance thinkers believed that humans could construct their own meaningful view of reality by reasoning about the pieces of the world they could perceive around them rather than by beginning with God as the objective authority for truth and meaning. To glimpse a famous example of this thinking in sixteenth-century Rome, let’s head to the nearby Vatican Museum.
Shuffle your way through the crowds streaming through the museum’s gilded corridors, and you’ll (eventually) wind up in the Sistine Chapel, famed for its paintings by Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475–1564). One scene shows how Michelangelo envisioned the creation of man, with God and Adam nearly touching. For centuries, people have viewed this painting as symbolizing how humans are created in the image of God, whose Word is our authority for truth. But more recently, scholars have suggested Michelangelo’s depictions of God may contain or exist inside illustrations of the human brain. Was Michelangelo implying that “people created God,” meaning that human thoughts and feelings are the authority for truth?
Whether or not this interpretation of Michelangelo’s artwork is correct, such humanistic thinking gained rapid traction during the Renaissance, reflecting Satan’s original lies, “Did God actually say . . .?” and “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:1–5). To believe these lies and make ourselves the authority for truth is to leave the ultimate foundation for truth, logic, morality, justice, and human value, which God’s Word supplies. This leads to disastrous consequences and paves the way for later totalitarian regimes, including those influenced by Karl Marx.
From Michelangelo to Marx
Marx, an atheist, believed that humanity evolved without a Creator and therefore must “create” itself. This process of self-creation, according to Marx, involves laboring toward the development of a atheistic, communistic society that would free humanity to reach its full potential. To make this claim that man is his own creator, Marx first had to discount Genesis—a step which the increasingly popular ideas of millions of years and evolutionary origins seemed to justify. Summarizing these views, Marx stated:
The creation of the earth has received a mighty blow from geognosy—i.e., from the science which presents the formation of the earth, the development of the earth, as a process, as a self-generation. . . . But for the socialist man, the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis.
We can see traces of Marx’s man-centered religion in Renaissance-era humanism reflected in other works by Michelangelo. For instance, when describing a room which displays some of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, Francis Shaeffer noted,
Here we see on either side Michelangelo’s statues of men “tearing themselves out of the rock.” These were sculpted between 1519 and 1536. They make a real humanistic statement: Man will make himself great. Man as Man is tearing himself out of the rock. Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious.
From Michelangelo to Marx, we see the recurring, fatal pattern of humans rejecting God’s Word to try making themselves “like God”—a pattern as old as Eden.
The Battle Continues
In today’s Western society, the cultural descendant of Rome, we see the same pattern unfolding at every turn. We again find ourselves at the front lines of the ancient worldview battle where humans wage a futile war against their Creator. We see this battle in Marx’s call for man to create himself via communism. We see it in the Renaissance times and the centuries of church compromise which led to the need for the Reformation. And we see it among the early believers in Rome, where standing on God’s Word over man’s meant facing horrific deaths.
Like these early Christians, we live in a culture that disagrees with God’s Word on many points. We’re told that when culture and Scripture disagree, we can reinterpret Scripture accordingly—even though doing so means following man’s word over God’s. Today, it’s no secret that the pressure to compromise with man’s word is growing ever stronger, due in part to Neo-Marxist movements which label Bible-believing Christians as oppressors who must be overthrown.
Surrounded by the roar of crowds, we must join the early Roman believers in resolving to stand on the Word of our Creator, Jesus. We can fix our eyes on him with confidence, knowing he has already won the war.