The problem has challenged the Church during her entire existence: How are Christians to engage and relate to the surrounding culture? How should we then live? What does it look like to be in the world but not of it?

H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture, has influenced or at least informed the discussion, notably among Western evangelicals, since it was published in 1951. Niebuhr proposed five models, which he labelled as 1) Christ against culture; 2) Christ of culture; 3) Christ above culture; 4) Christ and culture in paradox; and 5) Christ the transformer of culture.

1. Christ against culture

Christ against culture occupies one extreme of the continuum. All expressions of culture outside the Church are viewed with a high degree of suspicion and as irreparably corrupted by sin. They are to be withdrawn from and avoided as much as possible. Traditional ascetic communities as well as various sectarian and fundamentalist groups would hold to some version of this view.

2. Christ of culture

Christ of culture sits at the polar opposite from the previous one. Cultural expressions as a whole are accepted uncritically and celebrated as a good thing. In theory, little or no conflict is seen between culture and Christian truth. In practice, the latter is compromised to accommodate the former. This is the view espoused by classic Gnosticism and liberal Protestantism.

3. Christ above culture

Christ above culture, a medial position between the first two, regards cultural expressions as basically good, as far as they go. However, they need to be augmented and perfected by Christian revelation and the work of the Church, with Christ supreme over both. This view was expounded by Thomas Aquinas, and has been a predominant position among Roman Catholics since.

4. Christ and culture in paradox

Christ and culture in paradox is another medial option between the extremes. It sees human culture as a good creation that’s been tainted by sin. As a result, there’s a tension in the Christian’s relationship to culture, simultaneously embracing and rejecting certain aspects of it. Augustine (in part) as well as Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard are representative of this view.

5. Christ the transformer of culture

Christ the transformer of culture is yet another medial alternative. It also recognizes human culture as initially good and subsequently corrupted by the fall. But since Christ is redeeming all of creation, the Christian can and should work to transform culture to the glory of God. This is the view held by Augustine (again, in part) as well as John Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition.

Going beyond the five views

It’s important to note that while Christ and Culture has remained influential on evangelical thought for over 60 years, Niebuhr himself was writing as a liberal Protestant in mid-20th-century America. His model, although helpful as a framework, is not without some serious problems. The second category, in particular, isn’t even a viable option from a faithful, Biblically orthodox perspective. It could be argued that the first category isn’t, either, although many conservative Christians continue to pursue it.

In general, Niebuhr’s categories are too broad and loosely defined. When he speaks of Christ and the Church, he doesn’t so much mean the actual historical person and institution as described and defined by Scripture. Instead he uses the terms more or less as a stand-in for Christendom, a catch-all for anything and everything that might be called Christian in the widest sense.

Likewise his take on culture could stand more nuance. Does he mean the culture of Postwar America? Ancient Rome? Medieval Europe? Communist China? Or is culture just a generic concept to which Christians should respond the same way, regardless of their own specific context?

These problems, among others, are addressed by D.A. Carson in his re-evaluation of Niebuhr, Christ and Culture Revisited. Unlike Niebuhr, Carson writes from a soundly evangelical perspective. While recognizing the significance of Niebuhr’s work, Carson cautions against the tendency to treat it as almost canonical, as a discreet set of five either-or options for the Christian.

When it comes to engaging culture, Carson rightly argues that one size doesn’t fit all: Christians have different cultural concerns in 21st-century North America than in 19th-century Northern Europe or the killing fields of Cambodia or present-day South Sudan. The five models are better seen as a single model representing five points on a continuum. Depending on the context, the Church may need to employ a combination of approaches selectively derived from one or more of them.

Most important, Carson moves the discussion back onto the field of Biblical theology, where it belongs. The Scriptures are the single authoritative source for knowing who Christ is, what He has done and what He continues to do throughout history. From that will flow a more faithful conception of the Church and culture, as well as the relationship between the two.

Church history has borne out that there’s no single, comprehensive protocol for Christians to engage the culture around them. Richard Niebuhr provided a useful framework and D.A. Carson has offered an updated and more Biblically informed approach for the contemporary Church.

But it is to Scripture itself that we must turn, not for a list of cultural dos and don’ts, but for a clear understanding of God and his plans for the world through the Gospel of His Son. He wants us, by the power of His Spirit, to exercise our minds, train our consciences and develop our discernment as we grow in our role of representing Him in the culture where He’s placed us.

Sources and further reading

Carson, D. A. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951.

Stackhouse, John G., Jr. “‘In the World, but . . .’” Review of Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr. Christianity Today, April 22, 2002. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/april22/8.80.html

Wax, Trevin. “Book Review: Christ and Culture Revisited.” Review of Christ and Culture Revisited, by D.A. Carson. The Gospel Coalition, June 4, 2008. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2008/06/04/book-review-christ-and-culture-revisited/

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