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  • Writer's pictureDon Walker

Christ and Culture

Over sixty-five years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr (brother of Reinhold) wrote a significant little book entitled Christ and Culture. It became one of the most influential Christian books in the 20th century. This book continues to cause discussion in the theological world due to Niebuhr’s articulation of the five ways historically Christianity has interacted with culture. Though Niebuhr does not fit neatly into the “evangelical” world, there is much for evangelicals to gain from examining his famous “five types.” Evangelicals have, and do, inhabit all of Niebuhr’s types. Each type has some degree of merit and worthy of discussion, as believers seek to define how they should – and should not – interact with contemporary culture. I trust that my brief condensation of the five types will be helpful as you personally wrestle with this issue.

The first type is “Christ against culture.” It characterizes what can be described as “the sectarian impulse.” Niebuhr refers to this as the “new law” type. Christians in this mode see the world as hopelessly corrupted by sin. The Kingdom of God comes to supersede it – currently in the purity of the church, and ultimately in the messianic kingdom. The emphasis as it relates to culture is the call to “come out from among them and be ye separate.” This viewpoint has traditionally been represented by such groups as the Mennonites, the Baptists, Pentecostals, and the “Holiness” churches.

The second type is “Christ above culture.” This was the perspective of Thomas Aquinas and remains the view of many Roman Catholics today. In this view, all that is good in human culture is a gift from God. But to be fully realized, this good requires Christian revelation and the mediation of the Church. For example, Aristotle’s insights can be received by the Christian joyfully (as they were by Aquinas), but these truths need Christian theology to accompany them in order for their full understanding to be recognized. Before Aquinas, this view was reflected by some of the apologists in the early church who allied themselves with Plato. In today’s evangelical world we find this type represented by missionaries who emphasize anticipations of Christian revelation in the beliefs of non-Christian cultures. (For a study in this I would recommend the book, Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson.)

The third type is the model of “Christ of culture,” in which the conflict between the two gives way to a harmony between them. Christians in this mode seek to discern and then champion the highest moral common ground between the teaching of Christ and the noblest values of contemporary culture. Niebuhr associated this view with Germany’s “Cultural Protestantism” of the late 19th and early 20th century, Victorian liberals, and the American Whigs such as Thomas Jefferson. Today, American evangelicals frequently exhibit this perspective when they closely associate God and country.

The fourth type is referred to by Niebuhr as “Christ transforming culture.” This perspective finds it representatives for evangelicals in the Puritans and the revivalists (John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Charles Finney), who were trying to both evangelize and bring about social reform. In this type the Kingdom of God is to come to social structures as well as individuals. Business, the arts, the professions, family life, education, civil government – all are to come under the rule of Christ and all must be reclaimed in His name.

The fifth option is called by Niebuhr “Christ and culture in paradox.” This is the view attributed to Martin Luther, and is the view of Reinhold Niebuhr. In this type, Christians live within a strong tension. On one hand, they believe that God has ordained worldly institutions and that we must work within those institutions the best we can. On the other hand, we must affirm Christ’s kingdom that has invaded the world here and now. Thus, under God’s providence, we follow a path that can seem crooked and unclear as we try to honor what is divinely ordained in the culture, while at the same time living out the distinct values of the Kingdom of God as best we can without compromise.

I believe that these five types must be held in “tension” with each other. I believe that each of these types can be scripturally validated to some degree. I believe that at some points there is the “intersection” of types. I would ascribe to the view that the fourth option is God’s ultimate intention teleologically as it relates to Christ and culture. Yet I believe I see validity in the other alternatives at various stages in the movement toward that end.

Allow me to present some questions that I believe are worthy of discussion. I believe the church needs to understand the times and the cultural environment in which it lives. When one considers the varied circumstances and cultural situations, under which Christians in the world live, each of these types have a certain degree of merit. The cultural situation in much of the world at the present is different than what we find here in the United States. Is it possible that the type most suitable for the church in China to follow be different than the type expressed by the church here in the U.S.? Does the cultural environment determine the primary mode in which the church should relate to the culture? Did the church in the first-century relate different to the cultural environment than the church in 17th century England? Were these not two distinctly different situations requiring different approaches to the culture? Is the approach different when dealing with a pagan or “pre-Christian” culture, than when dealing with a “Christian” culture (or a “post-Christian” culture – as Francis Schaeffer described Western civilization)?

I present this to you for your consideration.

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