Christ, Culture, and Convenient Categories
Francis Schaeffer criticized a socially irrelevant church in his small treatise on " The New Super-Spirituality" while affirming that Christ is the Lord of the WHOLE man. I was reminded of this as I reread H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. I first read Christ and Culture when I was working on a degree in sculpture at university in the late Seventies. I must submit that H. Richard Niebuhr's thinking informed much of my early thought life on the subject at hand. I have subsequently deferred to the idea that he was such a refiner of this thought processes that the truth suffered.
Much of what has been written over the past forty years on the idea Christ and Culture evidences the great influence of Niebuhr's considerable intellect, especially among a generation of Christian intellectuals. I will proceed to critique the work with the premise in mind that his writings have actually helped construct and inform the present milieu.
How should lessons from the Biblical world be translated to the much different context of our anti-authoritarian, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern society? Every view that Niebuhr explored has at least a portion of the paradigm that can be supported scripturally. I will do so at reasonable junctures.
"Christ Against Culture."
This is the view that affirms separatism based on a view of sanctification that is not entirely scriptural. It was historically modeled by early Christians in a context of extreme persecution. 1 John 4 warns Christians of the importance of deciding for Christ against the attractions of the world. The Anabaptists and those who follow in their traditions (Mennonites, for instance) have interpreted such texts as normative for the present context. In spite of this, these groups have exhibited rich traditions of service within their communities.
These groups take to heart the designation of the people of God as a "peculiar" people and even manifest this belief in their clothing. They typically also refuse to take oaths, serve in the army or on juries and refuse to bear arms. The United States has served as a haven for these groups who were traditionally persecuted in Europe. The refusal of the Anabaptists to baptize infants was a political act, a rejection of the Constantinian model of the church, and an affirmation that members should lead lives of discipleship.
The Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists (1527) posited, "God...admonishes us to withdraw from Babylon and the earthly Egypt that we may not be partakers of the pain and suffering which the Lord will bring upon them." This does not necessarily mean geographical isolation from the world, or ignoring the rest of the world. It means nonconformity to the ways of the world. The view is that Christians are supposed to behave differently from the standards of the dominant culture. In and of itself, this nonconformity does not mean disengagement. It does imply a different way of life.
Calvin wrote that many Christians, especially the monastics of his day, expected believers to separate from the world in outward behavior, style of language, dress, and other externals. "We have never been forbidden to laugh," Calvin writes, "or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine." (Institutes,3:19:9 )
Niebuhr says this view is flawed because in it Christians are said to withdraw from the world, reject any responsibility for it, and to be no longer "in the world." One must ask if it is really possible for adherents to this view to withdraw completely from "culture." Even those churches that have dissented from many aspects of the dominant culture still participate in it in many ways through sharing its language, through involvement in its economic system, through social interaction of various kinds. Niebuhr ignores the possibility that the most transforming activity of the church in relationship to the culture might not be to try to wield power in the dominant culture. It may be more powerful to demonstrate by the church's own life the transforming and healing power of God's new community.
"The Christ of Culture."
The second model in the taxonomy is "The Christ of Culture." One could say that the biggest flaw with this viewpoint is that it ultimately forgets that creation is fallen- things are not normal. This derives originally from a Pelagian view of Christ as moral example who is the pedagogue of the perfect society. The belief smacks of the utopianism evidenced in modernism's attempts to create a sociological messiah who was an anthropomorphism of enlightenment faith. He is example, not sovereign, for man fills that coveted role in this construct. This is a Christ who is created in the image of man.
Any time the church falls into the trap of confusing redemption and creation, the distinctives of the Kingdom of God suffer mightily. We see this in the so called "Social Gospel" as well as the element of American evangelicalism that associates the kingdom of God with the "American way of life".
Romans 8 speaks clearly about the nature of redemption. Not only is God concerned with saving individuals; He is also redeeming by the work of Christ the cosmos around us. All of the oppression and ills that devastate culture do have a solution-but they will only be realized if we work for the advance of the kingdom of God and wait for the consummation. This is not merely an pendulum swinging reaction to the excesses of dispensationalists who have proposed that there is no need in fixing a sinking ship. (In fact I have never met such a person and I sojourned for years in those circles). Christians are participants in the redemptive activities of Christ through the church. We have become agents of redemption.
The logicus terminus of this opposition is evidenced in the total lack of distinctive difference it has made. The approach died along with modernism. As its adherents worked to reform society, they were eventually (or are being) swallowed up by the culture; after a while the distinctives of their faith disappeared.
"Christ above culture."
The next type is "Christ Above Culture." This approach is held by so called "centrists," those who have "refused to take either the position of the anticultural radicals or that of the accommodators of Christ to culture" (p.124).
While all of these models save "Christ against culture" are Constantinian in nature , this is the most congruent with what Christians saw under Constantine the Great when the old world order was turned on its head and Christians actually enjoyed favored political status. In medieval Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this model continued to shape the church, although there were always some dissenting religious movements, especially in the late Middle Ages. The Catholic church perfected this model, although it is evident in other areas as well. This is the model that many of the mainline churches of Niebuhr's day were working with. I would say this has much in common with the bourgeois church that Schaeffer blasted in the aforementioned "SuperSpirituality". Schaeffer insisted that we must not confuse the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God. this has not happened in space and time -yet. Having lived in Europe for several decades, he knew well the pitfalls and the ultimate failure of the Constantinian model. A church that lives by power dies by power. Though the church had shared the throne in European countries for centuries, now the great cathedrals of Europe serve as museums.
This construct must take on a different meaning in the present world order. As culture has realized a defined move away from Christ into an aggressively hostile attitude toward the church, this approach would seem to be untenable. Christ is creator, so nature is above culture at the root. A God of justice demands social action and a God of Holiness exercises a supernatural redemption. The synthetic nature of the approach would force the adherents into another category. If to be in the world becomes synonymous with being of the world then the Christian must reject the culture's inroads and influence. The church of the center is a wayward church in that respect. Yet in seeking to communicate with the world it is doomed to fall in.
Christ in paradox with culture.
It is debatable whether Luther himself actually subscribed to a tenable duality of society and kingdom as developed by his followers, who constructed a doctrine of Christ in paradox with culture. This approach refuses either to reject culture or to confuse culture with Christianity. I must say at this point that Niebuhr himself was influenced mightily by the work of Ernst Troelsch. If you know that up front, you can conclude that any critique of Lutheran views will necessarily be filtered through a negative set of presuppositions that will not necessarily reveal clear understanding of what Luther said.
On earth we belong to two kingdoms, said Luther: the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world. Each has its own realm of authority, and we are subject to both. It follows that God has created two distinct realms of activity in the world : one by creation and the other by redemption. In creation we are apportioned work, service and the citizen's responsibility towards the state, the pursuit of pleasure, and the institution of the family. In redemption, God gives us the church, with the Word and the sacraments. These are not two antagonistic nor identical realms, but two distinctly different realms (This hard dichotomization is problematic- the Reformed view typically follows the Lex Rex of Samuel Rutherford that Francis Schaefer adopted and defended in A Christian Manifesto).
This model helped define the Christians' role in a secular society, but it also posed difficult questions. What happens when the two kingdoms come into conflict? As Lesslie Newbigin poses the question, "Can one who goes the way of the Cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?" In Germany, many of Hitler's soldiers justified their service as an act of obedience to the secular kingdom. I find it appalling that many today blame Luther for creating the possibility of a Hitler. So much of what Luther wrote must be read in the context of his day. I will speak more on the issues with this view below.
"Christ the Transformer of Culture."
The model most closely associated with Calvin was realized not only in Geneva but also in England under Cromwell and in Puritan America. It calls for Christ to transform culture. The transformer type emphasizes God's sovereign lordship over all of creation and, therefore, all aspects of life. As part of fallen creation, culture will never be "redeemed" in the sense the church is redeemed; nevertheless, Christians should work toward the transformation of surrounding culture, government and society, bringing it in line with Christ's teaching as far as possible. The church is called into the world as salt and light, agents of redemption, which is through Christ. I believe it was Kuyper who said "Everyone needs two conversions, from the world to Christ, then back to the world with Christ."
Niebuhr appeals to John's Gospel as a characteristic example of this approach. Here Christ is emphasized as "the Word made flesh." Christ is not only the priest of redemption, but the king of creation. God loves the world, not just individuals in it and his redemptive work secured redeemed individuals who are part of a new creation (Ro.8:20-23). There is also the issue of the authority given to man in Genesis as the keeper of creation and appointee of the Creator Lord in the "cultural mandate" of the early chapters of Genesis.
I take issue with Niebuhr's thesis, in which he argues a wider gulf between Luther and Calvin than are reflected in their writings. While there are distinctions between Luther's sharp contrasts between the sacred and secular spheres and Calvin's interest in showing the relationships between them. The theories are mostly congruent and analogous, not at odds with one another.
Calvin includes a section in his Institutes titled "The Two Kingdoms," from which this excerpt comes:
"There is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the 'spiritual' and the 'temporal' jurisdiction (not improper terms)...The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority. Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God's sight." (Institutes, 3:19:15)
Niebuhr's understanding of the differences as expressed in the book have shaped evangelical thought on the subject and I for one do not concur with his analysis. The Reformed world and life view frees evangelicals from having to affirm that evangelism and missions are the only Christian endeavors; the arts, the academy and the political arena, have become legitimate places for vocations in which believers may serve God every bit as much as a pastor or missionary.
I would say that the reformers were agreed that while there was no final conflict between a Christian being involved in both realms, there was a contrast. The Reformation's central affirmation is that human activity can never bring salvation. And yet, the activity of Christian men and women does bring a certain transforming element as they live out their callings while bringing civil righteousness, justice, and compassion to bear on human relationships. Hoekema applied this in a triad - relationships with God, culture and other men.
The problem of personhood and citizenship is at the center of the issues addressed by Niebuhr. Plato had postulated that injustice serves the individual good with his Contra Thracymachus, which was left uncontested until Rousseau. The problem is monumental. Rousseau would say that natural man is entirely for himself "He is numerical unity, the absolute whole which is relative only to itself or its kind. ...Civil man('s) value ...is determined by his relation to the whole."
Rousseau postulates that uniting the two is all but impossible in the Emile. He also postulates that oppression is the WORST thing. Rousseau believes, in a leap of unsubstantiated faith, that raising Emile FOR HIMSELF will allow him to develop a character free of doublethink- i. e. "one who reads the word and the world." (Macedo et. al.). This is a throwback to fundamental enlightenment faith that never worked in reality. Dewey and Friere abandoned this approach (the path of nature, claiming authority that philosophers since Nietzsche have dismissed) and rightfully so, yet the problem they DO accept from Rousseau has evaporated with the passing of the enlightenment. Oversimple problems invariably yield reductionistic answers. In accepting the TERMS of the problem of personhood from Rousseau guarantees that the solution will not stray too far from Rousseau's. Today we live in a postmodern milieu where the critical theorists happily substititute "history" for "Providence" as the source of human's faculties for good. Yet human nature is not ONE set of properties- i.e. they are defined solely by their political role. That assumption is a result of the predeterministic nature of the postmodernist's presuppositions.
Over and against this approach is the Reformation "world-view." Schaeffer wrote a great deal of material on the Christian view of the world, creation, fall, redemption, eschatology, and other aspects of Reformation theology. He would be disappointed that evangelicals and fundamentalists have remained essentially hostile toward this world, though involved again for the first time in decades.
His legacy is being carried forward by belivers who are actively engaged in the arenas of the academy and the mass media, two prime purveyors of culture in our day. I would submit that though the lines blur between the last two types in the taxonomy the speakers most neatly fit into the transformative modality. We are to be driven by a desire to be a part of God's redemptive process which effects intellectual pursuits as well as the hearts and minds of those we are in relationship with. This classification is my own estimation however. Schaeffer himself would not answer the question when posed to him by Phillip Yancey in an interview in 1978, as revealed in a recent article:
"Several times I tried to pin Schaeffer down to one of the approaches outlined by Niebuhr. Which of the five did he prefer? He ducked and dodged, refusing to settle on one. Finally, he said, "I believe what works best is a nation that operates out of a moral consensus that is Christian." The Christian faith should not be imposed by the state. Rather, government and laws exist ideally as a kind of spillover of Christian sensibility, reflecting God's values as revealed in the Bible: peace; respect for life; environmental, racial, and economic justice." (Christianity Today, 2-3-97, A State of Ungrace, Part 1 )
This is the background I grew up in - a moral consensus informed by Christian morals. That is not to say that it was or is a Christian nation. On a more local scale, I grew up in an uneducated family that was against culture, or so we thought. If anything we accommodated to it, fearing to embrace it and drawn to it like a moth to the flame. We had no idea of transforming such a beast. It is a world that seemingly has passed away and lingers only in the ruins of modernism like the proverbial Ozymandias.
While I am not particularly nostalgic for the "good old days" (they never were), my preference for the idea that Christ is the transformer of culture who informs and authorizes its existance. Death is not right. The world is not normal. It will be made to be so one day. We are actively investing our lives in the activities which will bring glory to the Father and the redemption of His creation is one way in which he glorifies himself in time and space This approach is the only one, in my view that has an answer to the ills of the world and has in its previous incarnations met with some success in glorifying God.
As I said above, the transformer type emphasizes God's sovereign lordship over all of creation and, therefore, all aspects of life. Ultimately I prefer it because it is the only answer I can see to the problem of personhood and citizenship in any meaningful way in relation to the way things really are. Man finds true personhood by the transformative power of Christ and becomes a good citizen who, although an alien, is the preservative salt and light of his culture. Culture itself is influenced by the praxis of such citizens who engage and transform their particular portion of this culture.