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Christ and Culture Reconsidered

Richard Niebuhr published what became his best-known work in 1951, Christ and Culture. This page outlines his view, outlines Don Carson's critique of it, and presents a New View of both.

Niebuhr's View in Brief

Seeing the paucity of theological liberalism, Niebuhr was one of the 'postliberal' Yale School of neo-orthodoxy. In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr discussed five models of how Christ and human culture relate to each other:

Niebuhr held that these views are seldom present in their pure forms and that most thinkers named actually hold more than one view. Niebuhr's categorisation has been very influential in both liberal and evangelical thinking, probably because it expresses a way to perhaps escape the sacred-secular divide or at least tame it. CTC is the one that best bridges the divide and is the one that Niebuhr himself seemed to prefer. It is also the one closest the the New View, though, as discussed below, the New View sees something of insight in each of them. There have been critiques of his view, of which one good one is by Don Carson.

Carson's Critique of Niebuhr's View

Don Carson, 2008, has published a critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. Entitled Christ and Culture Revisited, his book contains excellent, clear argument that does the world a service in understanding Niebuhr and coming up with critical questions about it.

Carson does mention some good points in Niebuhr, including that CaC is comprehensive, that Niebuhr tries to ground all five models in Scripture, and that Niebuhr makes impressive appeal to a wide range of historical figures from many Christian viewpoints. He acknowledges how Niebuhr acknowledges weaknesses in his own views.

But most of Carson's critique is negative, though he tries later to present a modified Niebuhrian view. Some of Carson's negative views are useful in stimulating questions that might help us understand Niebuhr, and what he was trying to get at, better. I find that much of Carson's critique must itself be critiqued. Here are some of Carson's more useful points.

Carson's 'Non-Negotiables'

Carson identifies a number of 'non-negotiables'. It is by reference to these that he criticises some of Niebuhr. These are:

While these broadly match what might be called the non-negotiables of the New View (discussed in The Five R's), there is a great difference in emphasis and in interpretation. This difference explains much. To remind us, the five R's are:

Creation and Fall: Carson devotes half a page to Creation and over three pages to Fall. This suggests an imbalance in Carson. By contrast, in New View, the Fall is recognised as important but is not given prominence. It is understood, not as a major theme in its own right, but as a theme in the context of Relatedness. See also the page on The Fall. It is perhaps fair to say that some of Carson's discussion of the Fall is what New View discusses under Relatedness, but it is a pity that he places that within the context of Fall rather than placing Fall in context of Relatedness.

Creation: After saying "God made everything and he made it good", Carson devotes only one sentence to the non-human creation. The sole purpose of the non-human creation, according to Carson, is to testify to the glory of God; he seems to accord it no value in itself. However, elsewhere Carson does argue that God loves all he made.

Creation (Human beings): The rest of his short piece on Creation is devoted to human beings made in the image of God. However, somewhat with New View's discussion of radah, Carson points out our special responsibility of "governance and care" for the rest of creation.

Israel and the Law: Carson makes four points, the first two of which are shared with New View: God chose a special people, and God's law touches all parts of life. The other two points are not so important to New View: more of the law is about religious ritual than about morals, and there is no separation between 'church' and state (a point of special interest to those in the USA?).

Christ and the New Covenant: Carson makes six points: the Eternal Word is incarnated, Jesus announces and inaugurates the kingdom of God, Jesus' cross and resurrection is primary, it established a new covenant, it enabled the Holy Spirit to come so that the church (~all peoples", not an institution) could be built, God trumps Caesar. The New View would agree with that, but would be disappointed about the balance of emphasis in Carson. Carson says so very little about the role of the Holy Spirit, and his work in maturing people into Christ and writing God's law in our hearts, which is part of the new covenant. He says nothing about the 'sons of God' being such as the rest of creation will rejoice over, and little about our hope for the future in a renewed heaven and earth. He fails to treat church as a people who represent God and work with him in God's world. All these are crucial to New View, and probably to Niebuhr too, so it is no wonder that Carson does not like some of Niebuhr.

Heaven and Hell: We live for the world-to-come, and should not aim to build utopias here. In this Carson agrees with New View. However, his use of the derogatory word 'utopia' suggests that he believes Scripture gives us no warrant to work to improve the structures of society here; in that he disagrees with New View, which holds that God's people should work on the structures of society as well as at the level of individuals as part of their representing God and being ambassadors of God and bringing redemption.

If these are what Carson feels is 'non-negotiable', it is no wonder he does not like Niebuhr's second and fifth models. His selection of what is non-negotiable means he simply cannot appreciate some of what Niebuhr is trying to say. The New View can criticise Carson, as above, can support some of Niebuhr. But it also questions both Niebuhr and Carson because it questions the very grounds on which Carson criticises Niebuhr.

A 'New View' of Christ and Culture

References

Carson, D.A. (2008). Christ and Culture Revisited. Apollos, InverVarsity Press, Nottingham, UK.

Machen, J.Gresham. (1923). Christianity and Liberalism.

Niebuhr, H.R. (1951). Christ and Culture. Harper Torchbooks, New York, USA.

Richardson, D. (?). Eternity in Their Hearts.


This page is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2010, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

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Created: 27 April 2011, 1 May 2011. Last updated: