ABC Extra – Christ and Culture

February 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


This past weekend in worship and ABC, we wrapped up our series, “Unresolved,” looking at how we, as Christians, are called to relate to our world.  This question of how a Christian interacts with the world is a longstanding quandry, and was perhaps most famously addressed in 1951, by Yale theology professor H. Richard Niebuhr in what would become the defining work of his career, Christ and Culture.  In this seminal work, Niebuhr outlines five ways in which Christianity has responded to culture, or the world:

  • Christ against culture.  Niebuhr summarizes this response as one which “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45).[1]  Thus, this response to culture eschews most encounters with culture.  For instance, “political life is to be shunned…Military service is to be avoided because it involves participation in pagan religious rites and the swearing of an oath to Caesar” (54).  This way of thinking, then, takes a stance of deep suspicion and antagonism toward things of the world.
  • The Christ of culture.  People who adhere to this system of theologizing “feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.  On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with His work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, electing from His teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about Him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83).  Thus, this response is liberal and affectionate to the zeitgeist of a culture.
  • Christ above culture.   This, historically, has been a majority position in the Church, and posits that “the ‘world’ as culture [cannot] be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature” (117-118).  In other words, though Christ is not opposed to culture inherently because He in some sense created it, He nevertheless reigns above it and is certainly grieved by the sin that has crept into it.  As Niebuhr writes, “The fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world, important as that issue is, but between God and man” (117), for man is sinful.
  • Christ and culture in paradox.  Like the response of Christ above culture, this view sees the fundamental issue as one between God and man:  “The issue lies between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self.  On the one side are we with all of our activities, our states and our churches, our pagan and our Christian works; on the other side is God in Christ and Christ in God…It is not a question about Christians and pagans, but a question about God and man” (150).  How does Christ deal with men who are against Him?  By means of His law and His gospel.  Niebuhr says this is the position of great theological luminaries such as Augustine and Luther.
  • Christ the transformer of culture.  This response “is most closely akin to dualism [i.e., Christ and culture in paradox], but…what distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture…[Conversionists have] a view of history that holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men” (190-191, 194).

Although Niebuhr never explicitly endorses any of these five views, he offers no criticism of the fifth view.  Many scholars, then, believe that this is the view to which Niebuhr gives his tacit approval.

So which view is correct?  On the one hand, save the second response, all of these views have something valuable to offer to orthodox Christians.  On the other hand, to simple accept each view as equally valid quickly degenerates into an anachronistic and individualistic pluralism.  That is, accepting each view indiscriminately enables each individual Christians to respond anachronistically to different situations in their lives using whichever model they arbitrarily deem best at the time.  This will not do.  The question we must ask, then, is, “Which of these five views is normative for the other four?”  The Lutheran response would be, “Christ and culture in paradox.”  Why?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, this view understands the root of our problem, which is not culture per se, but us.  The reason there is even any discussion concerning how Christ relates to culture is because the people of culture are sinful and depraved, hostile to God.  Second, because this view is realistic about human sinfulness, it does not fall into self-righteousness, for it understands that “all of us are in the same boat,” as it were, and therefore encourages us to love our neighbor and serve in our respective vocations, just as Christ commands.  Thus, we, as Christians, in our life’s stations, are called to proclaim the  “gospel of faith in Christ working by love in the world of culture” (179).  This understanding, in turn, frees us up to decry the evil not only of culture, but of ourselves, as does the view of Christ against culture. Yet, it does not fall into separatism.  It allows us to herald the transcendent gospel as the solution to this world’s problems as does the view of Christ above culture.  Yet, it does not fall into dualism or even a soft Deism.  And it allows us to serve in our vocations for the good of our neighbors, transforming culture, as does the view of Christ the transformer of culture.  Yet, it still realizes that we, as culture is transformed, are by no means able or responsible for creating a utopian society.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the view that Christ and culture are in paradox is simply this:  it acknowledges and allows the tension between Christ and culture.  And it admits that we can never remove this tension or relegate it to a non-issue.  This, in turn, empowers us, as Christians, to engage our world thoughtfully and humbly, for we, like the rest of the world, are sinners, but we are also joyfully and freely redeemed by Christ.

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rev. Kevin Jennings  |  February 20, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Hi, Zach!

    As always, a great, thought-provoking, truthful post. Concerning Niebuhr’s categories, I’ve always wondered if he was truly trying to categorize things. As you so well note, this is not a recipe or a template by which to evaluate situations.

    One word in your response captures the Lutheran mind: tension. As Lutherans, we live in tension and we’re okay with it. To categorize is, at least in my mind, an attempt to force things into making sense. Lutherans deal with the proper distinction (tension?) between Law and Gospel.

    God bless!
    Kevin

    Reply

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