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I Understand What You Are Trying to Do:  Niebuhr's Christ and Culture

It is no secret that vast numbers of Christians, and the myriad Christian groups to which they belonged, have different interpretations of how to follow Christ. Midway through my seminary study of church history (in my first semester as a doctoral student), I was introduced to a book which provided a hat rack on which to hang all the different Christian groups I had and was studying: Richard Niebuhrís Christ and Culture (1951).

Niebuhrís book helped me understand why there were so many different interpretations: people understand the relationship between Christ and culture differently. Therefore, as an aid to helping others understand the wide range of Christian perspectives, the rest of this article will detail Niebuhrís main point. In a nutshell, he believed that Christians view their interaction with culture in one of five different relationships; I will present them from one extreme to the other. (While he has his critics, this is helpful in understanding why there are so many different Christian groups.)

Christ against Culture. This view holds that Christ creates a new people and calls them out of the world. Christ is not the highest authority, He is the only authority. Christ and culture are at odds with each other; the choice is either-or. In order to follow Christ you must reject culture. Christ does not work through culture. Sin easily dwells in culture and so true Christians will remove themselves from contact with culture. Culture is unredeemable and hopelessly anti-God.

Christ and Culture in Paradox. This view holds that Christians must remain in tension when interacting with culture. They are not to reject culture, yet to view it with suspicion. Christ does not work though culture, but Christians can use certain aspects of culture to further the cause of Christ. Christians recognize that they cannot get away from culture and so live in it, but they seek to rid themselves of the influence of culture.

Christ the Transformer of Culture. This view retains the sharp view that Christ is separate from culture, yet believes that Christ can change culture. This is done by impacting individuals who will in turn impact culture. Christ is not concerned with culture but with the hearts of people. God created all things good (according to Genesis 1), yet they have been perverted through the fall of Adam. Therefore, all perverted things (read "culture") can become good again. So, while culture is misdirected, it can be renewed through interacting with Christ.

Christ above Culture. This view holds that there is good in culture, but only because God produces it. Therefore, Christ and culture do work together. This "good" in culture is used by Christ to further His plans; He not only works through the church and Christians but through culture as well. Therefore, Christians should seek Christ out within the church and also should seek out those ways that Christ is working in culture.

Christ of Culture. This view holds that Christ and culture overlap. Christ affirms culture and freely works through culture. Christís purpose will sometimes be revealed within the church and sometimes from culture. Christ is the great enlightener and will work in culture to bring all people to wisdom and peace. Being the opposite extreme of Christ against Culture, this view holds that Christians and the church need to be relevant to their time; as culture changes so should the Christians and churches change accordingly and like-mindedly.

©2005 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at marknickens@gmail.com

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