H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Christ and Culture represents a cogent and systematic approach towards the categorization and evaluation of the Church’s interplay with culture throughout space and time.  It is a seminal articulation, as evidenced by the strong feelings that it elicits from modern authors writing in the same field today, fifty-two years after its initial appearance.  One begins to sense, when surveying a merely random sampling of modern works on the subject, that there is something of a Niebuhrian specter over the entire field which one may resist, acquiesce to, or curse, but never ignore or deny.

Niebuhr’s foundational contention is bold and provocative in its Christological assertions.  He quotes approvingly Rabbi Klausner’s contention that Jesus threatened culture “by abstracting religion and ethics from the rest of social life” and postulating a concept of an otherworldly, a-cultural kingdom.1  Niebuhr speaks of Christ and culture as “two complex realities” and argues that “Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture” and towards a radical devotion to God.2  To prove this contention, he points to the claims of the early antagonists to Christianity and their perception that Christ presented a threat to their culture.

It must frankly be asked whether or not this picture of Christ is true.  Did Jesus teach a radical devotion to the God outside of culture and in so doing not only not concern Himself with the advancement of culture but frankly disregard it as well?  This assertion would appear to be a gross oversimplification, and we may defend this by a number of means.

To begin with, there is no explicit evidence in the instructions of Jesus that this was His intention.  Such a bold claim should ideally be able to point to some extant biblical claims to this effect.  In truth, given the radical nature of Klausner and Niebuhr’s claim and given the far-reaching implications of such a claim, one would hope to see an abundance of such evidence.

Instead, what the Gospels offer us are claims that are either enigmatic or seemingly contradictory to Niebuhr’s Christology.  Mark 12:17 (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”) may be seen as postulating a radical dichotomy between the Way and the culture, but it could also be read as a theological statement about the supremacy of God, the recognition of which might, in actuality, cause His followers to enrich and guide culture.   Furthermore, John 17:11,15-16 (“I do not ask that You take them out of the world…They are not of the world.”) could be read as an expression of Jesus’ desire that His people live with no regard to the culture, but it is perhaps better to see it as an appeal to the Father on behalf of His followers who will be exhibiting other-cultural values (yet not necessarily a-cultural values) in the dominant world system.  Furthermore, the salt and light word-picture given by Jesus in Matthew 5:13-16 would appear to flatly contradict Niebuhr’s picture of Jesus through its emphasis on such restorative, preservative, and life-sustaining mediums.

Niebuhr’s Christology has also been poignantly critiqued in the work of John Howard Yoder.  In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder takes great pains to show that, far from ignoring culture or abolishing it, Jesus’ teachings offered a revolutionary political ethic that was a far cry from the simply sectarian privatized spirituality to which Niebuhr appears to limit His focus.  Yoder argues that the cross was “a political alternative to both insurrection and quietism,” that Jesus was killed for sedition, not heresy, that the very forming of the disciples had “political import,” and that Jesus ushered in a quite this-worldly jubilee.  Furthermore, Yoder contends that Christ represented and taught a new kingdom on earth then (as opposed to a merely future kingdom), that Jesus rejected precisely that separatistic a-cultural spiritualism which Neibuhr claims He adhered to, and that He sought to create “an alternative social group” and not simply an anti-social group.3  Through many other examples, Yoder demonstrates that Christ not only did have great concern for culture, but that the redemption of man in his entirety was the crux of His coming.

Yoder’s critique, which, while it may be forced and overstated at times, is quite solid in its central assertions, also calls into question Niebuhr’s understanding of the reasons why Christ and the Church were resented and resisted by the culture.  Niebuhr argues that early Christianity was resisted because they threatened culture through disinterest in it and through directing “their hopes towards another world.”4  Niebuhr contends also that Christ was understood to have failed to motivate His followers to “human achievement” and that He fostered “intolerance” in His followers.5  However, it would seem that the opposite was the case.

Christ was resisted not because He bred indifference to the culture in His disciples thereby rendering them effectually useless in the construction of a better social order, but rather because He introduced a culture that stood in such radical contradistinction to the prevailing culture that it was seen as a threat to the power structures of the day.  It was not, then, that Jesus and His followers were so intolerant that it engendered ire in those outside of the community of faith.  Rather, they were so tolerant that their counter-cultural alternative threatened the very survival of the world’s norms.  Thus, Christ may be accused of threatening culture, but for very different reasons than Niebuhr suggests.  Most importantly, his understanding of the cultural and socio-political import and, indeed, thrust of Christ’s teachings is misguided.

Flawed though his Christology is, however, Niebuhr’s typology of Christ and culture may still be evaluated.  This is because of the fact that his typology more readily reflects the Church and culture.  The body of Christ and Culture is ecclesial more than Christological.  Niebuhr expressed five types of approaches the Church has taken towards culture:  “Christ Against Culture,” “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ Above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”  Before interacting with the individual types, we must deal with the overall typological structure itself.

Fairly serious charges have been leveled against Niebuhr’s framing of the problem by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (who have rather famously claimed that “few books have been a greater hindrance to an accurate assessment of our situation than Christ and Culture.”).6 Hauerwas and Willimon argue that Niebuhr affirmed “Constantinian” social strategies and that he dismissed those outside of his own liberal tradition as being narrowly sectarian. They also argue that Niebuhr sacrificed the radical nature of the Christian community in his call to responsible participation in the power structures of the culture, and that, in his typology, he “failed to describe the various historical or contemporary options for the church” and  “simply justified what was already there.”7  This last charge is a direct criticism of the typology itself.

Hauerwas and Willimon are, overall, quite persuasive in their critique of Niebuhr, but one suspects that they protest too much and have not adequately considered the qualifications which Niebuhr himself put on the types.  In truth, Niebuhr recognized a “multiplicity” of approaches that churches and individual believers have taken towards culture.  Furthermore, the categories are merely “typical partial answers” that have been recurrent throughout history.8  He saw the entire discussion as dynamic and ongoing.  The types do seem insufficient with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight, but Hauerwas and Willimon go too far in their implication that Niebuhr was being underhanded by framing “the argument in such a way as to ensure that the transformist approach would be viewed as the most worthy” and by employing “subtle repressiveness” in his construction of the types.9

It must also be stated that Niebuhr’s methodology is commendable.  In presenting each type, he offers an in-depth expression of its thesis, points to representative examples of the type, and then offers the positives and negatives of the position.  Hauerwas and Willimon go so far as to be suspect of his affirmation of the positive aspects of each type, seeing in these affirmations a strategic ploy which subtly promoted pluralism as a virtue thereby preparing the reader to see Niebuhr’s own pluralistic position as the most admirable.10  It is difficult not to feel that Hauerwas and Willimon, for all of the brilliance of their own proposals concerning the problem of Christ and culture, occasionally lose themselves in the moment.  There is no reason to suspect that Niebuhr was being anything other than objective and fair with the types, even if, as seems clear, he preferred one over the others.

Niebuhr depicts his first type, “Christ against culture,” as that approach which rejects culture, sees it as fundamentally evil, and turns from culture’s political and societal expressions in an attempt to find protection and avoid spiritual contamination.  Those who use this approach view the Church as “a third race” which stands apart from the fallen culture.11 Representative of this type were Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy.

Niebuhr’s handling of 1 John under this type illustrates one of the deficiencies of his approach:  the tendency and temptation to force the scriptures into these categories.  Admittedly, he does qualify that no book of the Bible fits neatly into any of these categories, and that 1 John simply “contains the least ambiguous presentation of this point of view.”12  However, Niebuhr’s rather conjectural assertion that the author of 1 John was so sure of the imminence of Christ’s return that he gave little thought towards creating a cultural ethic or set of instructions in this area reveals a certain tendency towards eisegesis in his handling of the text.

Even so, Niebuhr’s critique of this position is quite thorough and balanced.  He correctly notes that those who have adopted this approach often end up influencing and advancing the culture as well as drawing from the culture at the same time.  In short, the great Achilles’ heel of this type is its assumption than one can truly detach oneself from the culture.  It is, in actuality, impossible, and even those that have adopted this approach end up trafficking in cultural forms of thought, speech, and interaction.13  This approach appears to be naïve of the cultures’ role in forming who we are.

As balanced as Niebuhr’s handling of the “Christ Against Culture” type is, it must be noted that there are subtle but serious problems that arise here as well.  By lumping “Protestant sectarianism” in with the ascetic and nearly monastic Tolstoy and the legalist Tertullian, Niebuhr appears to imply that viewing the Church as a separate culture (i.e., “sect”) means abandoning it to irrelevance.  Yet, there is a powerful school of thought, of which Hauerwas, Willimon, Yoder, Clapp, and many others are a part, which have convincingly shown that the Church as a separate people among the people not only has the potential to redeem the culture but is, in fact, the model which Christ himself taught.  That is, there is a form of sectarian engagement which the Niebuhrian categories cannot allow.

For instance, Christian political thinkers Timothy Sherratt and Ronald Mahurin would almost certainly be considered by Niebuhr to be in the “Christ Against Culture” category.  They see Christians as inhabiting a unique culture, a Kingdom within the culture, so to speak.  However, they argue that the ethics of the Kingdom will enrich the culture even though they will do so through the use of non-cultural tools (i.e., the infusion of love instead of power into the political process).14  Furthermore, Lawrence E. Adams has demonstrated that, given the inner turmoil and self-contradictions of American public opinions, and given the willingness of the American culture to follow leadership which is clear and engaging, “the acting out” of kingdom principles within the community of faith, regardless of any use of or involvement in the normative cultural power structures, will likely prove to be its most effective tool in reaching the culture.15  Thus, the suggestion that all sectarianism is a form of negation and isolation proves to be too simplistic.  In truth, a sectarianism that would offer the wider culture a powerful display of countercultural ethics, political, economic, and otherwise, might possibly be the best way of engaging the culture.

Niebuhr’s handling of “Christ in Culture” is quite admirable and balanced.  Those in this camp are theological liberals, those who seek to wed what is best in Christianity with what is best in culture.  They are “this worldly” and are concerned less with the purported miracles of Scripture than with human achievement and attainment.  The Gospel is posited in cultural terms, and Jesus is seen as the apex of civilization.  These are the enlightened ones, rationalists whose Christianity ultimately ends up being a vague form of Gnosticism wearing a Christian jacket.16

While pointing out that Fundamentalist critics of cultural-Protestantism are often guilty of the same cultural loyalties and societal causes (albeit, of a different stripe) as those they criticize, Niebuhr actually repeats many Fundamentalist objections to this position.  He points out, for instance, that those who have adopted this approach do not seem to draw others to Christ, that they must, of necessity, compromise on the scandal of Christ in order to accommodate to culture, and that they seem to open the door for mere humanism.17  Consequently, his overall tone of this position is one of rejection.

Niebuhr classes his final three types under the umbrella term “the church of the center” and argues that these churches represent “the great majority movement in Christianity.”18  The “church of the center” expresses itself, according to Niebuhr, in three ways:  through the synthesis of Christ and culture (“Christ Above Culture”), dualistically (“Christ and Culture in Paradox”), and with a conversionist emphasis (“Christ the Transformer of Culture”).  This grouping together is important insofar as it implicitly relegates separatistic strains to the realm of the tangential.  At this point, Haurwas, Willimon, and others who are arguing for the creation of a radical culture within the culture seem justified in their frustration with Niebuhr.  Again, separatism and sectarianism are too easily dismissed by Niebuhr’s types as being those approaches which impact culture only incidentally.  Clapp, Yoder, Hauerwas and others have very convincingly shown that this is simply faulty.

The synthesist is the believer who understands the distinction between the Lordship of Christ and the temporality of culture, but who nonetheless seeks to bring Christian verities to bear on his immediate culture.  He seeks a unified system, though not, like the “Christ of Culture” believer, to the point of sacrificing the supremacy of Christ.  There is no confusion in his mind about his priorities.  Christ is preeminent.  However, he wants to see the Kingdom lived in the culture now.

In many ways, Francis Schaeffer is the champion of this approach.  Through his use of culture in apologetics and his call for a return to a Christian America, Schaeffer, who clearly reflects elements of “Christ the Transformer of Culture” as well, represents a modern attempt at the synthesis of Christ and culture.  Yet, Schaeffer offered tragic but clear affirmation of Niebuhr’s criticism that synthesists “tend, perhaps inevitably, to the absolutizing of what is relative, the reduction of the infinite to a finite form, and the materialization of the dynamic.”19

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Schaeffer’s most blatant call for Christian engagement with the culture, A Christian Manifesto, a book which was instrumental in the solidifying of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980’s.  Here, Schaeffer bizarrely attacks Christian lawyers and intellectuals for the “loss” of the culture to the humanist worldview and rather shrilly calls for Christians to see the “conservative swing in the United States,” as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, as a temporarily opened window which offers Christians the greatest opportunity to impact the culture.20  In so doing, Schaeffer “absolutized the relative” (i.e., a political opportunity in a particular election) and reduced the “infinite to a finite form” (i.e., the Church within the structures of the state).  In this, Niebuhr’s evaluation of the synthesists proves not only amazingly accurate, but prophetic as well.

Ultimately, Niebuhr appears to favor “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”  He refers to the adherents of this position as belonging to “the great central tradition of Christianity” and seeks to show how this position avoids the extremities of the others.  Once again, those who see Christ as being “against culture” are relegated to the category of largely irrelevant and reactionary separatists.  True engagement, according to Niebuhr, comes in operating within the structures of the culture.  His appeal to this position as being not merely a position, but a “motif” which runs through “the Gospel of Matthew and the Letter of James through Paul’s epistles to the Fourth Gospel, or proceeds from Tertullian, the Gnostics, and Clement to Augustine, or from Tolstoy, Ritschl, and Kierkegaard to F.D. Maurice” further reflects his admiration of it.21  Clearly, then, Niebuhr sees this type as that which not only has the widest biblical support but is also so pervasive that those of other types inevitably return and partake of it.  Indeed, for Niebuhr, this type strikes something of a via media between “the anti-culturalism of exclusive Christianity, and against the accommodationism of culture-Christians.”22

Yet Niebuhr’s optimism for this position has proven to be naïve.  One must question whether or not such an optimistic understanding and approach to the Church’s interaction within culture is truly able to impact culture and, perhaps more critical to the question at hand, to avoid cultural accommodation.  The charge that such an approach merely reinforces a “Constantinian” approach to culture, downplays the restorative and reforming power of a community exhibiting other-cultural values in the midst of the dominant cultural system to change that system, and binds the church to necessarily ineffectual means is frankly difficult to contest.  Furthermore, it has perhaps been demonstrated in the fifty years which have elapsed since the initial publication of Niebuhr’s work, that the optimistic liberalism of his approach has simply not achieved the type of results that adherents to this position might desire.

Ultimately, the dismissal of “sectarianism” as irrelevant and reactionary is too simplistic.  It inappropriately neglects the great potential for cultural transformation through the establishment of a community of believers who see themselves not merely as consumers and manipulators of existing cultural models but rather as harbingers of a radical new Kingdom ethic which might be exhibited among the larger culture, thereby creating a distinct new alternative to decaying cultural norms.

1 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 2001), 3.
2 Ibid., 39.
3 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 36-39,62,96,106.
4 Niebuhr, 6.
5 Niebuhr, 6-7.
6 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), 40.
7 Ibid., 40-41.
8 Niebuhr, 40.
9 Hauerwas and Willimon, 40-41.
10 Hauerwas and Willimon, 41.
11 Niebuhr, 49.
12 Ibid., 46.
13 Niebuhr, 66-69,72.
14 Timothy R. Sherratt and Ronald P. Mahurn, Saints as Citizens (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1995), 38.
15 Lawrence E. Adams, Going Public (Grand Rapids, MI:  Brazos Press, 2002), 131,133,152,154.
16 Niebuhr, 85-90.
17 Niebuhr, 108,113.
18 Ibid., 117.
19 Niebuhr, 145.
20 Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1982), 47,50-51,73-74.
21 Niebuhr, 190-191.
22 Ibid., 206.

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