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:
- Christ Against Culture (CagC): Human culture is against Christ, and the ungodly are against Christ's people, but Christ will eventually win; this view is especially prevalent where and when Christ's people are persecuted. Christ's people should reject all claims to their loyalty made by the culture.
- Christ Of Culture (CoC): Human culture is an arena in which Christ works, to perfect culture; this view is especially popular among theological liberals and in gnosticism, but Carson (see below) also sees a modified CoC view in Don Richardson (Peace Child).
- Christ Above Culture (CabC): Christ is sovereign over culture, which serves largely to prepare us for eventual communion with God; this view, held by 'synthesists', is prevalent among Scholastic and mediaeval Roman Catholic thinking, and was promulgated e.g. by Thomas Aquinas.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox (CCP): Human culture is incompatible with Christ, i.e. evil, but we (including Christ's people) are trapped in it; this is the 'dualist' view, especially prevalent in Augustine and Luther, and all attempts at explaining it sound like paradoxes (such as that we are all lost in sin but also under grace, wrath and mercy, such as that we live in time and eternity).
- Christ Transforms Culture (CTC): Human culture is an arena in which Christ works, not to perfect that which is here, but to transform it according to his own design; this 'conversionist' view is prevalent among those who see Christ at work to bring change here and now, not just later, even in the so-called 'secular' world.
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.
- The range of views Niebuhr allows about Christ is ujsefully broad, but too broad. Though it excludes Arian, Mormon and Jehovah's Witness views, it includes liberal theology view and gnostic view. Carson argues these should be excluded because they are "entirely happy to set aside the great turning points of redemptive history (including the incarnation and the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) while remaining convinced that Christianity has something invaluable to offer to humankind" [pCarson 2008 pd.35]. They deny some non-negotiable, historical main beliefs. (He cites Machen's view that liberal theology is not even a heresy of Christianity but a different religion altogether.)
I have some sympathy with Carson here, and the New View does not include much from liberal theology, but also with Niebuhr. If we wish to merely plot historically important views about the relationship between Christ and Culture, then we should include all that Niebuhr did. But if we wish to identify views about this relationship that it is valid to consider, then Carson's point is useful.
- As a result, the CagC view, which N. aligns mainly with liberal theology and gnosticism, should be either ignored or, Carson suggests, much modified. He suggests that Don Richardson's views are CagC but are in line with the main 'non-negotiables' of Scripture: Richardson shows how revelation from God has occurred throughout many cultures, not against the revelation through Christ but in anticipation of it.
- Carson believes that Niebuhr's view of 'culture' is also too broad and also ambiguous. It includes ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisations, inherited artifacts, and so on. Carson points out that culture seems to boil down to: all of human life that is devoid of Christ, and suggests that N. is talking not so much about Christ and Culture but about two sources of authority found mainly in the Western world, namely CHrist and secularism.
- Carson criticises Niebuhr's view of the canon of Scripture. N, he claims, holds that Scripture holds a number of distinct paradigms. C himself takes the view that Scripture has a single paradigm, or rather that the 'rule' of the canon lies in the totality of its instruction [p.41].
I believe that the entire Scripture speaks from God and the entire should be taken, but I also believe that what is written is from a sequence of distinct paradigms.
- Carson points out that the CTC view is the only one for which Niebuhr offers no criticism. So it's obvious that this is N's favourite view. It is a pity that N offers no criticism of it, because it suggests he has not fully worked it out.
- Carson often refers to the New Testament. But he seems to privilege the New over the Old Testament.
New View sees both as of equal importance. Especially it is the Old Testament that shows how, over long periods, God tends to act in the world. Thus the Old is the better source than the New of knowledge of how the Living God relates to culture.
- Very usefully, Carson suggests that Niebuhr's different models or types should be seen, not as distinct models, but rather as distinct aspects of the relationship between Christ and Culture. As aspects, they work together and can be separated only conceptually.
Carson identifies a number of 'non-negotiables'. It is by reference to these that he criticises some of Niebuhr. These are:
- Creation and Fall
- Israel and the Law
- Christ and the New Covenant
- A Heaven to be Gained and a Hell to be Feared
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
- What is culture 1? Both Niebuhr and Carson presuppose culture is that which is visible, talked-about, discernable, thought-about, subjected to academic debate or the attention of opinion-formers. Both of them seem to ignore the 'invisible' culture of everyday life of ordinary people, much of which is largely ignored by the opinion-formers and those who discuss culture. Or even sneered at. It is exemplified for example in Britain by love of birds or local history, the pleasure of collecting things or working out one's genealogy. These are things that affect people's lives and constitute their views.
- What is culture 2? The grounds on which Carson debates with Niebuhr are too narrow. They include such things as ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisations, inherited artifacts, but not the worlds of academic theory, nor the economic system, nor attitudes to the rest of creation. The very concept of culture is, perhaps, unhelpful. Instead, New View is more in terms of the plethora of what humanity and human beings do, rather than in one entity called 'culture'. This avoids Carson's problem with Niebuhr that culture is that which is devoid of Christ. Instead, what human beings and humanity do is seen as acting with and in relation to Christ, but sometimes in rebellion against him and his laws. The important thing, to New View, is whether, in each sphere of law, we go with or against the laws of each sphere, recognising that it was God who set the spheres in place. So, with Carson, we recognise that nothing is 'devoid of' Christ, though some might be against the laws that God wove to become the warp and weft of creation.
- What is Christ? If we are to speak of 'Christ and Culture', Christ, to the New View, is the One Anointed by God, and is indeed God in genuine human form, the One in whom God was representing himself to us all, and who is the only means of salvation for the entire temporal reality. Christ, in this phrase, must also include the Holy Spirit of God, who indwells Christ's people and is only One who makes us holy and mature like Christ and able to fulfil again our creational mandate of shepherding the rest of creation. So, to New View, all humanity's functioning (which is what is meant by 'culture' 1 and 2 above) is forgiven, indwelt and matured by Christ-and-the-Holy-Spirit. Carson has a much thinner view of Christ. So, I think, does Niebuhr.
- God's People and Others. If by the phrase 'Christ and Culture' we focus not on Jesus Christ as such but on God's people in relation to the whole of humanity, then the New View affirms each one of the aspects or models of Christ and Culture developed by Niebuhr:
- Christ against Culture: This speaks of the difference in root motivation and orientation between God's people and the rest, because of the Holy Spirit.
- Christ of Culture: This speaks of God's people being part of humanity and operating in the same spheres of life, in Relatedness.
- Christ above Culture: This speaks of God's people bringing God's ways into the functioning of humanity, acting perhaps as salt among others.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox: This speaks of the continuing presence of evil alongside the powerful work of the Holy Spirit via God's people, and perhaps of the innate limitations of the current temporal reality compared with the reality to come. This speaks of the responsibility of those who represent God.
- Christ Transforms Culture: This speaks of God's people acting as light in two major ways: bringing Christ to the rest of humanity, enabling those who wish to, to become part of God's people or at least to taste Christ, and bringing a Christ-centred, Biblical view into the public sphere, not to dominate but to critique and stimulate the structures and theories of society to reorientate and enrich them. This relates to God's Cosmic Plan.
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.