In 1951 Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture. In it he listed five ways the authority of Christ relates to the ideas, influences, and authorities of the world—what might be called “culture.” These include Christ against culture (e.g., Amish and hyper-fundamentalists) on one side and the Christ of culture (e.g., “cultural Christianity,” be it conservative or progressive) on the other.
In between these poles, Niebuhr also observed places in Scripture and church history where Christians have put Christ above culture. He rightly remarks that this is where most Christians live, vacillating between various forms of synthesis and separation from culture.
Evaluating Christ and Culture
To this day, Niebuhr’s book remains the historic guide to thinking about Christ and culture. However, more recently and more biblically, D. A. Carson has updated the conversation by evaluating Niebuhr’s book and presenting his own “biblical theology” of culture (see his Christ and Culture Revisited). Carson shows that Niebuhr’s conclusions suffer from his own Protestant liberalism, that at times he forces Scripture into his mold, and sometimes Niebuhr includes in the wide-tent of Christianity things at are not (e.g., Gnosticism).
Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s five-fold taxonomy (or four-fold is “cultural Christianity” is excluded) helps us think about Christ and culture. As Christians, we must have a multi-pronged approach to the world: we must resist the world without retreating from it; we must love the world (John 3:16) without becoming friends with the world (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15); we must appreciate God’s common grace in the fallen world, even as we seek the conversion of the lost, such that these new creatures in Christ might go into the world as salt and light to better preserve, purify, and improve the world.
All in all, the Christian’s duty to be in the world but not of the world is perplexing. Like the Jews living in exile, we must seek the welfare of our secular city (Jeremiah 29), but in seeking the good of our neighbors, we must not seek the city of man more than we seek the city of God, the city whose architect and builder is God.
But how do we do that?
A Biblical Theology of Culture
When thinking about matters of faith, it is always best to follow Scripture’s own redemptive-historical framework. Carson does that in Christ and Culture Revisited, and what follows is a similar outline. What he says in a dozen pages, I will lay out in six points. While his observations provide many nuances that space disallows here, what follows can help us think about appreciating culture without becoming slaves to culture; it affirms the goodness of creation, even as we long for the day when Christ makes all things new. (If you find this outline helpful, let me encourage you to pick up the discussion in Carson’s book).
Because God created the world “very good” (Gen 1:31), his world continues to be filled with wisdom, wonder, glory, and goodness. Humanity still bears God’s image (James 3:9); morality is still written on the heart (Rom 2:14); and science and history reveal truth about the God of creation (Rom 1:20). In response to God’s creation, we ought to give thanks to God for creation and seek to be wise stewards of all God made.
Tragically, after Genesis 3, sin infected every person (Rom 5:18–19) and all creation, too (Rom 8:18–22). Cultures are, therefore, multi-layered fabrications responding to sin. At the same time, societies devoid of Christ and religious systems that fill the gap lost in the fall create idolatrous cultures. Accordingly, nothing we think or do is naturally pure. Our world follows the devil (Eph 2:1–3) and wages war against God (cf. Rom 5:10). Thus all cultures—what John calls the “world”—invites us to betray him. In response to the fall, we must not love the world. Instead, we must resist its schemes and the lies of its lord, the devil.
God is distant because of Adam’s historic sin. In Eden, God wasn’t invisible. He came and walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. But when they sinned, humanity was ejected from the Garden and blinded from glory. Graciously, God promised to redeem humanity (Gen 3:15). The continuation of the seasons and the proliferation of the nations are proofs that God is at work in the world. He upholds cultures so he can save people from every nation. In response to promised grace, we must remember God’s presence in the world, watching for ways he turns history for his own purposes.
Though our sin rightly invites the judgment of God, the covenant with Noah established a covenant to preserve creation. As a result, the world is well-stocked with common grace. Common grace includes every gift God gives short of salvation. Just governors, healing medicine, and mechanical skill and craftsmanship are just a few examples of common grace. While the church is called to proclaim the gospel, we should recognize the goodness of God among all people. As fellow humans, we should be “salt and light” who seek to “transform” culture, even as we put primacy on proclaiming the gospel. In response to common grace, we should appreciate the common grace we find in Hindu doctors and humanist mechanics and transform culture via the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28).
While increasing common grace improves culture’s morality, wisdom, and excellence, it is insufficient to redeem anyone. For this reason churches must keep the Great Commission at the center of their ministry. Christians have been called to reach individuals with the gospel such that they might repent and believe. When a critical mass of Christians are born again, a new culture is born in their local church. And when enough churches inhabit a given area, they impact their local geo-political culture. Therefore, Christians should seek to improve their given sphere of influence, but never without thinking about how they can be a witness for Jesus Christ. In response to the gospel (and our calling as ambassadors of Christ), we must share Christ with the world, focus on the developing the faithfulness of our local church ‘culture,’ and trust that when local churches are filled with fruit-bearing Christians, it will spill over into the world
Finally, the tensions between Christ and culture will remain until Jesus returns. Until then we must pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We ought not fool ourselves into thinking we can create a Christian culture in the world. Rather, we ought to speak often our Father’s kingdom and invite the lost to come be apart of his kingdom, even as our frustration with this world leads us to hope more passionately in the coming kingdom and its abiding culture. In response to Christ’s future kingdom, let us not be overly attached to today’s cultural artifacts; instead, let us await Christ’s appearing with eager expectation.
In this age, God answers the Lord’s prayer in short-lived sections—namely, the kingdom of God is seen in local churches founded on and built up by the Word of God and Spirit-filled saints. One day though, Christ’s kingdom will come, and the kingdom of God will fill the earth. On that day every culture (i.e., every tongue, tribe, people, and nation) will glorify God as they were created to do. What a day that will be!
Let us not settle for cultural Christianity today. Let’s instead pray and labor to share Christ, that we may hasten the day of his return and see his kingdom envelope every culture.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds