Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Niebuhr_review_01222015Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture, helped define the conversation around the sweeping changes in society that have occurred over the past generation. It is accordingly helpful to review Niebuhr’s writing before diving into the new world that we find ourselves in. Niebuhr lived from 1894 to 1962 and taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School during his career.

The study of ethics concerns itself with how to apply basic principles to life’s problems. Schools of thought are important in studying ethics because decisions must be made against competing objectives and placing differing priorities on the basic principles. For example, in deciding how to spent our nights and weekends, we frequently must make a tradeoff between parental duties (a deontological criteria) and future income (a teleological criteria). The tradeoff over how to spend this time accordingly poses an ethical problem.

Niebuhr’s contribution to the debate over the relationship of the church to culture in the United States in the 1950s was to develop a classification schema (or typological framework) of 5 conceptually possible relationships. In his introduction, he reviews different alternatives on which to base a classification schema, including: Psychological, churches and sects, mystics, social-economic, and philosophical methods (xxxix-xl). He prefers a theological basis to classify divided into 5 types (xli-lv)

1. Christ against culture (new law);
2. Christ of culture (natural law);
3. Christ above culture (synthetic or architectonic);
4. Christi and culture in paradox (dualistic or oscillatory); and
5. Christ transforming culture (conversionist).

In his first chapter, he retains this classification schema going on to discuss his definitions of Christ and culture. He starts out saying: “A Christian is ordinarily defined as ‘one who believes in Jesus Christ’ or as ‘a follower of Jesus Christ’” (11). He then goes on to reflect on the diversity within the Christian community . In defining culture, Niebuhr notes a parallel problem of diversity (that is, comparing two heterogeneous categories). He sees culture having 4 primary attributes:

1. It is social;
2. It includes human achievement;
3. It is a world of values; and
4. It is pluralistic (29-41).

Niebuhr structures Christ and Culture into 7 chapters, including:

1. The Enduring Problem (1-44);
2. Christ Against Culture (45-83);
3. The Christ of Culture (83-115);
4. Christ Above Culture (116-148);
5. Christ and Culture in Paradox (149-189);
6. Christ the Transformer of Culture (190-229); and
7. A Concluding Unscientific Postscript (230-256).

These chapters are preceded by numerous front matter sections (notes, acknowledgments, Foreword, Preface, and Introduction) and followed by an index. Clearly the focus of the book is on applying Niebuhr’s classification schema, not its justification.

Let me turn then to review Niebuhr’s 5 classifications.

Christ Against Culture. Niebuhr writes that this classification: “affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45). He then writes: “Every phase of culture falls under indictment. Through state, church, and property system are the citadels of evil, philosophy and science and arts also come under condemnation” (60). Although Niebuhr notes many advocates of this position, it is more normally today associated with the Anabaptists denominations, such as the Mennonites and some Pentecostals. God’s sovereignty is over both church and state.

The Christ of Culture. Niebuhr writes that these groups: “understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83). Christ is viewed as the great educator (84). Participation in the culture poses no particular problem (87). Liberal and fundamentalist can both join in this classification (91), but the offense of Christ to culture appears lost in the accommodation (108).

Christ Above Culture. Niebuhr sees “the great majority in Christianity” who “refused to take either the position of the anti-cultural radicals [Christ Against Culture] or that the accommodation of Christ to culture [Christ of Culture]…For the fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world…but between God and man” (117). He further divides the great majority into “synthesists, dualists, and conversionists” (116) which make up his last 3 classes. The Christ Above Culture class is “the synthesis [who] affirms both Christ and culture” (120). Saint Thomas Aquinas is the arch-type for this class.

Christ and Culture in Paradox. Niebuhr’s dualist “divides the world…into realms of light and darkness, of kingdoms of God and Satan” (149). Niebuhr sees the Apostle Paul as a dualist (166).

Christ the Transformer of Culture. Niebuhr says “The conversionist…does not live so much in expectation of a final ending of the world of creation and culture as in awareness of the power of the Lord to transform all things by lifting them up to himself” (195). He sees Calvin falling into this category (217).

Clearly, Niebuhr offered a starting point for discussing the relationship of Christ and culture. The economist in me is, however, confused by this classification schema not only because it compares apples and oranges (Christ as a kind of arch-type and culture largely undefined), but because it distinguishes attributes of every Christian’s journey of faith as separate classes. For example, while Niebuhr sees the Apostle Paul as a dualist, Paul is also the great articulator of conversion. How else could we classify the Paul of Romans 12:1-2? Is Paul to be thought theologically inconsistent or schizophrenic? My expectation (as an economist) is an apples-to-apples comparison of Christian and pagan culture.

Niebuhr implicitly presumes that both pagans outside the church and Christians inside the church are in some measure influenced by Christ. The ideas of competing religious influences or of cultural influences on Christ have relatively little influence on Niebuhr’s schema as he focuses on Christ’s influence on culture. While this emphasis may have been helpful in 1951, today it is clearly incomplete. For example, the fastest growing religion in the United States is Islam, even if primarily because of immigration—how does that fit in here? Our post-Christian culture is clearly no longer captive to Christian influence, if it ever was.

More to the point, the biggest challenge in the church today is syncretism—cultural influences, not from Christ to the culture, but from an increasingly secular culture to the church. This challenge raises serious issues for Niebuhr’s classification. While Christ is not changed by syncretism, our interpretation of Christ may be. The church, which was established by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, clearly is also influenced. Appeals then to Niebuhr’s classification accordingly appear anachronistic—an appeal to glories no longer evident. Worse, the classifications invite Christians to define their journey of faith in a particular classification rather than live out the entire Gospel witness. Consequently, if we are to appeal to a classification schema at all, it needs to be formulated based more exacting definitions of both Christian culture and pagan culture.

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