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? Continue reading