In the past several years, Christians have become freshly aware of the need to reflect on the relationship between Christianity and culture and on the importance of a consistent Christian worldview for living the redeemed life in Christ. Yet nearly six decades ago, long before the recent spate of worldview books began to be churned out, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote his classic treatment of the subject, Christ and Culture, which helped to orient me in my youth as I was seeking wisdom on the matter.
Niebuhr famously identified five basic patterns:
- Those following a “Christ against culture” position reject the larger culture and see the Christian community living as a permanent counterculture characterized by a completely different set of principles. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from the outside.
- The “Christ of culture” stance identifies the cause of Christ with all that is good in the larger culture, accommodating itself to that culture’s standard of goodness. Niebuhr sees this as typified by Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
- “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that transcend what human reason can know on its own. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
- The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the gospel must take priority, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul, Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
- Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose partisans aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John’s gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
Although Niebuhr never says it in so many words, one need hardly read between the lines to figure out which of the five positions he favours. Readers quickly clue into the author’s expectation that they, too, will support the conversion of culture above all.
Nevertheless, there is a peculiar quality to Niebuhr’s reasoning, which is picked up by the prolific Donald A. Carson in his new book, Christ and Culture Revisited. Nowhere in his book does Niebuhr argue that the conversionist position is the most consistently biblical of the five. In fact, by placing the apostles Paul and John into two different categories, he implicitly undercuts the canonical unity of Scripture, seeing it as so many disparate documents among which readers can choose on the basis of prior commitments. Because much of the discipline of biblical scholarship focuses on the scriptural texts as discrete or even composite documents reflecting the different priorities of the authors and editors, there is often a reluctance to situate them within a larger redemptive narrative holding them together.
In short, mainstream biblical scholarship tends to emphasize diversity at the expense of unity, which is perhaps not altogether surprising given that believers and unbelievers alike are engaged in the scholarly endeavour. Because unbelievers cannot be expected to attend to a central message of Scripture, with its evident call to conversion and obedience, all biblical scholars are under enormous pressure to accept the parameters of their field as defined by standards based on the least common denominator.
The irony of this is that it allows the very culture in which Christians find themselves to exercise a determinative influence on which of the five positions they will adopt for themselves. Because the Bible is understood not to speak with one voice, we readers can decide which of these voices we will follow. To which authority do we appeal in so doing? This is by no means clear, but it would seem in effect to make “Christ of culture” the default position, despite Niebuhr’s intentions otherwise.
Against Niebuhr’s cafeteria approach, Carson offers a robust biblical theology that better accounts for the univocal nature of Scripture:
Christians recognize the diversity of the Bible in general, and of the New Testament in particular, but insist that the Bible as a whole constitutes the canon—and this canon’s “rule” lies in the totality of the canon’s instruction, not in providing a boundary to possible options.
Carson isolates several non-negotiable themes that, taken together, give focus to Scripture as a whole: creation and fall into sin, idolatry as the defining centre of sin, the election of Israel and the giving of God’s law, redemption in Christ and the new covenant, and finally the new heaven and the new earth as the culminating conclusion to the story. Only by grasping the central narrative of the Bible can we hope adequately to address the issue of Christ and culture. This will necessarily take us beyond Niebuhr.
The remainder of Carson’s book takes up themes that are only tangentially related to Niebuhr’s argument while nevertheless being relevant to the larger question of the Christian’s relationship to culture. (One suspects that these chapters were written independently and for different purposes, only later to be brought together in the present volume.) Chapter 3 is devoted to a conversation with postmodernism, focusing especially on an ongoing debate with Calvin College’s James K. A. Smith (who, incidentally, has reviewed Carson’s book for Christianity Today). Chapter 4 treats “the seduction of secularization, the mystique of democracy, the worship of freedom, and the lust for power.” Carson devotes chapter 5 to church and state, surveying the distinctive approaches of a number of thinkers on the issue, including Jeffrey Stout, Hauerwas, Yoder, Oliver O’Donovan and Jacques Maritain.
In the sixth and final chapter Carson finally gets to Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, whose impact on North American Christianity has increased over the past generation or so, at least partly due to the influence of Nancy Pearcey and Charles Colson, as well as to numerous sympathetic academics at Christian colleges and universities across the continent. Carson believes that, in his later years, Kuyper lost his confessional edge. For Kuyper the “antithesis between belief and unbelief, between redeeming grace and common grace, waned.” Moreover, “the second half of Kuyper’s career sees him gently moving away from what is central in the driving force of the Bible’s story line.”
Whether Carson is fair to Kuyper and his legacy is, of course, open to question. It is perhaps best to let the Kuyper scholars assess this for the rest of us. Yet whatever the defects in his critique (e.g., the relationship between redeeming and common grace is hardly antithetical), Carson is right to note that where efforts to transform the larger culture become heavily intellectualized and cut off from the sources of genuine piety, the result is, if not precisely “sudden death,” as he would have it, at least a gradual withering of the vitality of the church.
Which brings us back to Niebuhr. Without a solid creational and biblical foundation for our efforts, any attempt to transform culture will amount to little more than trying to impose our own subjective aspirations on everyone else, whether or not they are willing, or—more significantly—whether or not those aspirations conform to the normative order of creation as understood in the light of Scripture. Moreover, given the encompassing presence and sheer power of the cultures of which we ourselves are part, there is every possibility that they will transform us first, even as we claim the opposite. If we should become comfortable with our surrounding culture, it may be because, by God’s grace, the latter will have responded to our successful efforts and become more congenial to true faith. Yet it is just as likely that we will have been unknowingly co-opted by the culture. How can we tell the difference? It will not be easy, but the place to start is by immersing ourselves in God’s written word and indwelling its story, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it. In any event, we should make every effort to remain vigilant and to keep our eyes continually on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Despite the positive features of Carson’s approach, there are two areas to which he would do well to bring further clarity. First, although he properly understands creation as the initial event in the grand biblical narrative, he does not do as much with it as he might. In Albert M. Wolters’ classic Creation Regained, the author devotes his longest chapter to creation, thereby underscoring its importance. In what is often called the “cultural mandate” (Genesis 1:26-28), God called his image-bearing creatures to the task of forming culture for his glory. In this respect, creation is much more than a single event; it encompasses the entire orderly cosmos—nature and culture—along with its rich potentialities that we human beings are uniquely called to unfold and develop. I doubt Carson would deny this, but it would be good to have him draw out its full implications more than he does here.
Second, Carson’s ecclesiology needs better to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as corpus Christi, or body of Christ. As an institution, the church is called by God to proclaim the word, administer the sacraments and to maintain right discipline, that is, to nourish and support believers in their life of obedience before the face of God. In Acts 15 we read of the first synodical gathering of the church in the institutional sense, which consisted of a meeting of the apostles to decide how to handle the influx of non-Jews into the church. Since then ecumenical councils and other deliberative bodies have met to decide doctrinal and other issues.
However, the church as corpus Christi is not just a collection of individual Christians. It is fully the church and is manifested, not only in congregational worship and ecclesiastical assemblies, but in every sphere of life in which human beings live, work and play. The church as differentiated institution has a unique and irreplaceable mandate given it by God—one that cannot be fulfilled by any other institution, whether it be family, state, marriage, business enterprise or labour union. But, like ancient Israel, the church as corpus Christi is mandated to serve God and neighbour in every calling and cultural setting, and not just in the institutional church. In this sense the church’s mandate encompasses also the state’s mandate to do public justice, the family’s task of raising children to assume adult responsibilities, and the business enterprise’s vocation to be a steward of creation’s potential, among many other normative activities. The task of the corpus Christi is thus not institutionally delimited but is bound by the central divine command to love God and neighbour in every area of life.
Many Christians lose sight of this fundamental distinction between church institution and corpus Christi. Nevertheless, recognizing it will enable us better to comprehend how our membership in Christ’s body impacts obedient living across the full spectrum of human activities, without in any way deflecting the institutional church from its own unique mission.