THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHRIST AND CULTURE.
So how do Christians who largely make up public Christianity see the relationship between public Christianity and the public square or for want of a better word, culture? How might we describe the different approaches to the relationship between Christianity and the public square?
A neo-orthodox German theologian called Richard Niebuhr (pronounced - Kneebar) wrote a classic book called Christ and Culture. In it, he describes a five-fold taxonomy of cultural interaction largely shaped by their prepositions.
1. Christ AGAINST culture
2. Christ OF culture
3. Christ ABOVE culture
4. Christ AND culture in paradox
5. Christ TRANSFORMING culture
The first two are usually dismissed quite quickly. In their purest form, an isolationist 'Christ against Culture' model leads to complete seclusion resulting in an inability to fulfil the church's Great Commission. And the 'Christ of Culture' model so equates Christianity with culture that it leaves no external ground or authority by which one could critique society. Essentially, we have quickly dismissed fundamentalism and liberalism.
While 'Christ of culture' is hard to defend biblically, 'Christ against Culture' is the uncompromising view that we have no loyalty to culture but to Jesus Christ only. Surely that is the view of the Book of Revelation when John, referring to Babylon, tells his people 'come out from her lest you share in her sins' (see also 2 Cor. 6:14). In its less extreme forms, the general idea of 'Christ against culture' is that contact with our culture is to be minimal, a what contact there may be is for the purposes of evangelism. These first two positions are usually dismissed as the two extreme positions, leaving us with the three mediating alternatives.
'Christ above Culture' is a synthesis of the first two views where culture is basically assumed good but needs to be augmented and perfected by further revelation and the good works of the Church. 'Christ above culture' is the classical Catholic position and Niebuhr argues the majority position of the Church for most of history, underpinning Christendom thinking. Niebuhr claims Justin Martyr, Clement, Tertullian, and in its most comprehensive form, Thomas Aquinas as supporters of this view. After all, did not Jesus say, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21)? The biggest problem with this view is that many of the proponents did not face up to the powerful and distorting presence of sin in all human work. It’s as if they imagine that the fall (sin) only affects us from the neck down.
Now, 'Christ and Culture' in paradox is also seen as a response to polar positions of 'Christ against Culture' and 'Christ of culture'. While the Catholic proponents of 'Christ above Culture' were synthesists, those who take this view are dualists - their dualism is between God and man. Unlike the 'Christ against Culture' group who tend to place emphasis on 'them against us', the dualist position says we are the same. We are all sinners. All human culture is corrupt, including all human endeavours.
To understand the dualists, we must appreciate they are not passing judgement on other human beings; they are passing judgement on ALL human beings, including themselves. When they speak of corruption, they assume their own and culture's while accepting that they cannot be removed from culture. The dualists defining mark is that they believe that God rules in the church with special revelation, but rules the world (culture) by natural revelation (common grace). This is the view of Martin Luther and European reformers, among others.
The last view is that of 'Christ transforming Culture'. If the previous two were synthesists and dualists – this group are conversionists. While that includes personal conversion, the primary idea centres on the conversion of culture itself. This is a much more positive stance towards culture. They place far more importance on creation and the initial goodness of culture while accepting it is corrupted by the fall. They are heavily influenced by the Old Testament trajectory of justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedeqah) and the concern of Rom. 8:19-22 where redemption benefits the whole of creation. Likewise, they lean heavily on New Testament imperatives to love their neighbour, be salt and light, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God (Mark 12:31; Matt. 5:13-16 and Micah 6:8).
Niebuhr seems to push us towards the last option of Christ transforming culture - but it is questionable if anyone should hold exclusively to just one position. While Niebuhr's work is a classic, it is mistaken in viewing each position as a discreet model to be adopted or rejected. This is where Don Carson and Tim Keller nuanced the different options to reflect aspects of a whole.
If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennial colloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at:
By Darren Middleton