Christian classics: H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Culture, Featured

In the library of Christian literature, there is no small discussion about how Christians should engage with the culture that surrounds them. It is, after the definition of the gospel, one of the most important discussions that can be had in the Christian faith, for it connects directly back to the last instructions of Jesus Christ, when he told his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture is a book that is still being discussed by scholars, 70 years after its initial release. Though his work is not without its flaws, the book is a significant academic achievement of its time, and it is therefore still relevant to any Christian who wishes to understand more of how historic minds have thought about Christ and culture through the centuries. This article will briefly discuss the main themes and categories of Niebuhr’s work, and offer a brief thought on its usefulness for the modern Christian.

Defining the Question of Christ and Culture

Most summaries of Niebuhr’s work characterize it as simply a description of how Christianity has historically engaged with culture, but this is a rather simplistic, if widely-used, caricature of the central question of the book. Niebuhr’s work is not famous only because it describes cultural engagement, but because there is something compelling in the way that it describes it, and in the way that Niebuhr chose to think about the main elements of this discussion.

Niebuhr’s “enduring problem” is in how the Church relates at different times and in different places to the competing poles of Christ and culture, as two sources of authority for Christians throughout history. Christ, as Niebuhr defines him, is really the authority to which the Church ostensibly submits; he is not merely the historical figure of Jesus, but also the teaching and instruction that Jesus gave. Culture is the environment that mankind has constructed around himself; it is mainly identified with education, art, government, industries, and other cultural institutions.1 Niebuhr’s great proposal is that the Christian Church through the centuries has related to Christ and culture in five different ways, with each way described as a “type”. In each type, Christians place Christ in a unique position in relation to culture, based on their unique conception of how this relationship should function, their understanding of culture, and their own unique flaws and advantages.

Christ Against Culture

The first two types that Niebuhr introduces represent two extremes of cultural engagement, fraught with errant and conflicting understandings of Scripture and the world. The first is the “Christ against culture” type, which depicts the Church as placing Christ somewhere outside the culture completely, and following him out there. “Christ against culture” sees faithful Christian practice as inevitably opposed to whatever traditions and customs exist in society. (“If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” – 1 John 2:15).2 This is not the mere critical stance that is taught in many moderate Christian circles today, but the complete withdrawal from culture that was attempted by the great separatist societies through the centuries – of the Quakers, the Amish, the Mennonites, and others.

While some figures in the Christ-against-culture type have made some positive contributions to the Christian faith, Niebuhr identifies several enduring problems with this stance, the most obvious being the impracticality and impossibility of truly removing oneself from culture. But on a deeper level, their rejection of culture leads them to an undue suspicion of the natural world in general, and a complete bifurcation between the natural and the spiritual that is not congruent with Scripture. In the extreme, this type tends to divide reality into a divided system composed of a world under the control of some atheistic principle, and a spiritual realm guided by a spiritual God. Meaningful understanding of Jesus as a historical figure, of the image of God in humanity, and of Jesus as the Creator of the physical world, is eventually lost.3

Christ of Culture

“The Christ of Culture” represents the opposite extreme, with Christians placing Christ completely inside their own culture. This is the position of mainline liberal Protestantism of Niebuhr’s time, of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, of the Judaizers of Galatians,4 and it sees Jesus not only as the Messiah promised in Scripture, but as the one who fulfills the promises of culture itself.5 For these cultural accommodators, Christ is the consummate citizen of their present nation or tribe, not a suffering servant but the Great Philosopher, the Deliverer of their people, and the Great Teacher.6

These cultural Christians do rightly reject the notion that the entire world outside of Christ is indistinguishably dark, and their optimism about the world makes them able to make some legitimate judgements between social movements and cultures. However, they rightly receive criticism from both non-Christians and Christians alike for their attempt to represent Jesus as a non-offensive, benign character that does not accord with the image that is plainly visible in Scripture.7 Just like in the first type, the Christ of culture eventually leads to the loss of the biblical Jesus, for if Jesus is primarily the consummate member of the human race then he at some point ceases to be divine.

Christ Above Culture

With the final three types, Niebuhr finally brings legitimately Christian models into view, which for him construct the “Church of the Center”. This encompases the majority of Christians, for whom Christ and culture exist not in an “either-or” but in a “both-and” relationship.8

The Christ-above-culture type affirms culture as “both divine and human in its origin, both holy and sinful, a realm of both necessity and freedom, and one to which both reason and revelation apply.”9 It also affirms the biblical Christ as the One who is the Creator of culture, the Source of all that is truly good, and the One to whom man’s allegiance is due. While their appreciation for culture divides them from the radicals, these Christians’ more orthodox understanding of Christ separates them from the cultural accommodators.10. In this paradigm, the Church’s responsibility is not to reject or accept culture completely, but to add to its honorable foundations, organizing it and ultimately perfecting its various divisions according Christ’s wisdom. The consummate theologian of this type was Aquinas, with his hierarchical understanding of the world, which taught that culture contained a basic virtue that could be perfected by the knowledge of the God of Scripture. The goal was a synthesis of Christ and culture, and therefore Niebuhr calls these Christians “synthesists”.

The synthesist is to be commended for their commitment to unity, a desire which surely emanates from a conviction of divine oneness.11 The synthesist may also seem attractive to many for their apparent adherence to cultural conservatism.12 However, therein arises a key flaw in the synthesist’s thinking, for the affirmation of human culture leads him inevitably to accept a worldview and categories, depending on the culture he affirms, which are incongruent with the worldview of Scripture. And therefore the synthesist will fail to think critically about his culture when it is in conflict with the wisdom of Christ. Ultimately, all other types (except the cultural accommodators) reject synthesism on the grounds that it fails to recon at all with the obvious presence of evil in the world, and therefore cannot adequately express the importance and necessity of the work of Christ to redeem it.13

Christ and Culture in Paradox

Perhaps the strongest critique, in Niebuhr’s judgment, to the synthesist came from a group that he called “dualists”,14 who sought most clearly to put forth a different kind of “both-and” conception of the relationship between Christ and culture. This type would describe many modern Christians who see Christianity and culture existing more or less parallel to each other, never truly converging, with the Christian undulating back and forth between the two poles of authority, committed firmly to Christ but physically located in the reality of his earthly culture. The dualist joins the radical in rejecting the foundations of human culture in allegiance to Christ, but at the same time is aware, at least ostensibly, that he is a member of culture and cannot get out of it, and that if God did not sustain him in and through his culture, however sinful it may be, it would cease to exist.15

The dualist rightly appropriates the dilemma of the Apostle Paul, agreeing that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), and aligns historically with Luther, Kierkegaard, and, to some extent, Augustine. But perhaps even more than the synthesist, dualists have been reluctant to adequately criticize social institutions that promote harmful and unjust cultural systems, most notably slavery. The type does not merely recognize Christ’s authority, but on some level wishes for the passing away of this life and the culture that goes with it, and therefore is unable to adequately work for reconciliation and justice, this side of eternity. Those things will come when God wills them, and it is not the responsibility of the dualist to hurry the divine hand. For these and many other flaws, dualism draws fire from the final type, the “conversionist”.16

Christ the Transformer of Culture

Niebuhr’s final type is in his words “the great central tradition of the church.”17 The “conversionist”, as Niebuhr calls him, sees much to affirm in creation, and in the culture that surrounds him every day. While he affirms, along with the dualist, that the systems and institutions of the world are corrupted by sin, the conversionist distinguishes between sin and creation, and therefore sees the problem of Christ and culture as one of converting and remaking culture through the actions of God’s elect. History is therefore not merely a record of human events but a dramatic interaction between God and man. To the conversionist, the Christian life is less about tension between two realities than it is about a single reality of eschatological fulfillment. Each day brings new opportunities to bring the divine will to bear in the world and build God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.18

The strongest Scriptural and historical cases are made for the conversionist type. The gospel of John, though it cannot be said to be a wholly conversionist document, clearly possesses all the relevant motifs of conversionism, distinguishing between flesh and spirit, creation and corruption (John 3:6), and also giving great spiritual meaning to everyday activities. Clearly, Jesus was sent not to condemn the world but that it may be saved through him (John 3:16-17). The world is not ruled by God but by the devil19, and must be reformed through the work of the Church. In John, and in the arch of the redemptive narrative, it is the nonhistorical that makes sense of history, that brings congruence to paradox, and creates flourishing in the places of injustice. Conversionists march forward along with Calvin, Augustine, and the obscure but influential F.D. Maurice.20

Conclusion

There is much to appreciate in Niebuhr’s seminal work, and modern Christians stand much to gain from his wisdom and comprehensive summary of Christian movements. It is often pointed out that Niebuhr was not a conservative or particularly orthodox theologian by modern Reformed standards, and this is true. However, he wrote from a strong conviction that the God of history is actively working out his aims and desires through the actions of his people, a claim that all orthodox and faithful Christians should be able to affirm.21 And Niebuhr’s system of categories, though flawed, successfully imagines cultural engagement in a sort of three-dimensional manner, making it more realistic and robust than many of the other systems that have been proposed in more recent years. His categories are still very much in use to this day, and scholars are still thinking about Christian cultural engagement on Niebuhr’s terms, 70 years later. It is mostly because of the enduring influence of Christ and Culture that Niebuhr is considered one of the most influential American theologians of the twentieth century, and his work is an important voice for modern Christians to understand, and a vital tool for fulfilling their dual calling as students of both Scripture and the world in which they live.

  1. pages 30-31.
  2. page 48
  3. pages 80-82
  4. pages 91-92
  5. page 85
  6. page 92
  7. pages 108-109
  8. page 120
  9. page 121
  10. page 121
  11. page 141
  12. page 146
  13. page 148
  14. page 149. Niebuhr notes that this sort of “dualism” is not to be confused with the typical Gnostic understanding of the word.
  15. page 180
  16. pages 188-189
  17. page 190.
  18. pages 194-196.
  19. Niebuhr cites John 8:44; 12:31; 14:30; 16:11.
  20. Niebuhr devotes an entire section to expounding the views of Maurice, pages 218-229.
  21. page 2.

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