In Niebuhr’s work, Christ and Culture, he offered five types or “postures” from which the Church has in the past and currently does meet and engage with the culture. In my opinion, Niebuhr does not necessarily endorse these approaches but offers them to the reader for consideration, though he does seem to be committal in the end to a particular approach. In fact, I think Niebuhr’s view is that,
“Christ as living Lord is answering the question [the enduring problem of human culture] in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.”1
In other words, God is using some aspect of all of the Church’s approaches throughout history to bring about His purposes.
A discussion of the five types is useful for us not only for an illumination of the five types but also for a launch pad to imagine other approaches or combinations of approaches to the culture. The five types are as follows:
Christ against Culture
Christ of Culture
Christ above Culture
Christ and Culture in paradox
Christ the Transformer of Culture
Christ against Culture = radicals, exclusive, isolated
The concept of Christ against culture is not uncommon to Christianity. Is it surprising that Christians, who at all times are being persecuted somewhere on the earth, might consider a Christ against culture posture? But 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 homes in on the main reason for this approach:
14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
“Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
Circle the Wagons?
There is the negative idea of the Church essentially rejecting the culture and intentionally isolating itself from those it views as worldly; a fortress approach. Niebuhr said, “For the radical Christian the whole world outside the sphere where Christ’s Lordship is explicitly acknowledged is a realm of equal darkness.”2 This is actually an adequate description of the way the average evangelical Pentecostal Christian views the spiritual condition of the world.
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
The idea that “no one can be a member of the Christian fellowship who does not acknowledge Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God who does not love the brothers in obedience to the Lord. This succinct statement of the positive meaning of Christianity is, however, accompanied by an equally emphatic negation. The counterpart of loyalty to Christ and the brothers is the rejection of cultural society; a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world.”3
But there is also the perspective that to some degree the view of Christ against culture is necessary to help the Church formulate its proper approach to the culture.
“The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement in cultural tasks. . . . What is necessary in the individual life is required also in the existence of the church. If Romans 13 [“The authorities that exist have been established by God”] is not balanced by I John [“Love not the world”], the church becomes an instrument of the state, unable to point men to their trans-political destiny and their supra-political loyalty.”4
Christ of Culture = cultural Christians, social gospel, liberal
According to Niebuhr, in the Christ of culture type, “Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophies.”5 Here are two modern examples of this approach:
“The question is also whether all those unappreciated small and great van Goghs in various fields of human activity would not draw inspiration and strength from the belief that their noble efforts are not lost, that everything good, true and beautiful they create is appreciated by God and will be appreciated by human beings in the new creation.”6
“Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.”7
“Cultural Christianity, in modern times at least, has always given birth to movements that tended toward the extreme of self-reliant humanism, which found the doctrine of grace—even more the reliance upon it—demeaning to man and discouraging to his will.”8
“It becomes more or less clear that it is not possible honestly to confess that Jesus is the Christ of culture unless one can confess much more than this.”9
There is the concept of Christ Who “affirms movements in philosophy toward the assertion of the world’s unity and order, movements in morals toward self-denial and the care for the common good, political concerns for justice, and ecclesiastical interests in honesty in religion.”10 So, the cultural Christians “make contact with the culture; presenting Jesus as the wise man, the prophet, the true high priest, the incorruptible judge, the reformer with a passion for the good of the common man; and at the same time they encourage the forces that are fighting against secular corruption.” 11
So the Christ of culture approach seems to be the bottom-up, humanist, liberal, social gospel approach that values human culture as it finds it. Cultural Christians accommodate Christ to culture.
Christ above Culture = Sythesists, Dualists, Conversionists
Imagine, if you will, an American culture marked, not by the search for pleasure but by the search for truth. Not necessarily a Christian America, but a non-hostile America, willing to have a conversation. This is part of what would be necessary in order for us to take a Christ above culture approach. The other necessary ingredient would be a patient, unified, Bible-believing Church whose power is not located in its political prowess but rather in its genuine connection with the Living Lord.
Here’s the way Niebuhr described it from the perspective of Thomas Aquinas whom he lifts up as an example of the synthesist approach:
“In his system of thought he combined [Christ and culture] without confusing philosophy and theology, state and church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine laws …. Out of these various elements he built a great structure of theoretical and practical wisdom, which like a cathedral was solidly planted among the streets and marketplaces, the houses, palaces, and universities that represent human culture, but which, when one had passed through its doors, presented a strange new world of quiet spaciousness, of sounds and colors, actions and figures, symbolic of life beyond all secular concerns.”12
There are two prophetic passages of Scripture that I think elicit the same kind of winsome hope for what is possible.
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: 2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar. 2 He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was flowing from the south side. 3 As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. 4 He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. 5 He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. 6 He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?” Then he led me back to the bank of the river. 7 When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. 8 He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea. When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh. 9 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Great Sea. 11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. 12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”
Many years ago my brother had a dream that was profound and one which I have never forgotten. It was simple, suddenly great trees grew up around the church, so high that the tops of the trees disappeared behind the clouds and fruit from their branches hung back down through the clouds; great pieces of fruit able to feed the nations! People came form miles around just to be fed by this supernaturally occurring fruit.
This is my interpretation of Christ above culture: an orthodox doctrine adhered to by a non-compromising Church that at once follows Christ and yet loves the people of the culture and that very patiently and methodically allows Christ to use her to lift the culture above its own lofty goals of philosophy and purpose to a fresh revelation of truth in Jesus Christ.
This approach also entertains the idea of morality as a gateway to a higher contemplative thinking, in which God leads the seeker of truth preveniently into a genuine revelation of Jesus as the Christ.
Christ and Culture in paradox = the dualists
Christ the Transformerof Culture = conversionist
1 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 2.
3 Ibid., 47-48.
4 Ibid., 68.
5 Ibid., 103.
6 Miroslav Volf, “On Loving with Hope: Eschatology and Social Resposibility,” Transformation, July/September 1990, 30.
7 Bell, Rob (2011-03-15). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Kindle Location 611). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
8 Niebuhr, 113.
9 Page 115.
10 Niebuhr, 106-107.
11 Ibid., 107.
12 ibid., 130.