Public Square

Making Sense of the Relationship between Church and Culture

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Every generation of Christians must work out their relationship with the culture around them.

Culture changes over time. Changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, and the development of new technologies alter the questions Christianity must answer and the concerns it must respond to.

And yet, as Solomon notes in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

To determine how we should live in light of the culture around us, we should consider historical examples of Christians who have lived before us. They often provide helpful answers to the questions that can seem most perplexing to us.

According to H. Richard Niebuhr, a prominent American ethicist and theologian of the 20th century, there are five basic ways Christians tend to interact with culture. He developed these paradigms during his teaching career at Yale Divinity School and published them in 1951 in his classic book, Christ and Culture.

Niebuhr’s five paradigms have been heavily critiqued in the six decades since he published his volume.

Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder are two of his most significant critics. From an Evangelical perspective, George Marsden and D. A. Carson have both been questioned the utility of Niebuhr’s categories.

However, none of his critics have proposed an alternate solution replacing these paradigms that help make sense of the relationship between the church and surrounding culture.

Niebuhr’s scheme of paradigms is certainly imperfect, but it remains helpful despite its critics.

1. Christ against Culture

The first of the five paradigms Niebuhr outlines is called “Christ Against Culture.”

Self-described Christians within this category believe there is an ongoing battle between the kingdom of God and the human culture around them. The effects of the Fall are ever present and pervasive in everything humans do.

Christians should, therefore, live in sharp contrast to their society. They should withdraw from the culture around them and create their own cultural expressions that better reflect God’s kingdom.

Those who seek to live by this paradigm are often isolated and have little ability to impact the world with the gospel.

2. Christ of Culture

At the other end of the spectrum in Niebuhr’s paradigms is the “Christ of Culture” perspective.

In this paradigm, everything culture deems to be “good” is to be accepted as from God. It relies on the prevailing culture to evaluate moral questions.

Those who fall within this category would argue that the moral norms of the Bible were often written for a particular time and place and have limited application for contemporary concerns.

Neither of these first two positions are particularly helpful for being a Christian that engages the world with the gospel. Between these two poles are three views that are more helpful for Christians.

3. Christ above Culture

Niebuhr’s “Christ Above Culture” is the position typically associated with Thomas Aquinas.

In this view, culture is pretty good apart from the gospel because everyone has access to natural law. Being good as an artist, musician, car mechanic, or doctor is not impacted by being a Christian.

Although being Christian is necessary for salvation, one is no better off in one’s profession because of the redeeming work of Christ; that redemption impacts the spiritual dimensions of one’s life only.

This is helpful because it reveals that simply being Christian does not make one better at one’s job. However, it seems to undermine the impact spiritual regeneration can have on all of life.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox

The “Christ and Culture in Paradox” paradigm is often referred to as the “Two Kingdoms” approach. Martin Luther is the leading example of this position.

In this perspective, there is a radical distinction between culture and Christian life. In one’s secular role, the values of the culture are most significant. In one’s sacred role, the values of Christ’s kingdom are dominant.

There will be a constant struggle within humans to balance their lives, which is a natural result of the Fall. Only in the new heavens and the new earth will this be resolved.

This perspective views the impact of sin and the hope of redemption as primary, but it seems to undermine the power of the gospel to be redemptive now.

5. Christ Transforming Culture

The final perspective is called “Christ Transforming Culture.”

This transformationist paradigm argues there is good in all things in the created order, but that all creation has been tainted with sin. Although we will never succeed until the new heavens and new earth, we should be pursuing the restoration of all things through the power of the gospel. We should see all of life as part of Christ’s kingdom, which is being renewed through the gospel to one day be completely restored.

John Calvin is a representative of this view. The strength of it is that it sees the power of the gospel as able to bring about restoration, though sometimes this can lead to excessive optimism about the achievable degree of restoration in the present age.

These five paradigms are points along a spectrum. Often individuals fall into these categories inconsistently over time or in different areas of life. These types are helpful places to begin the conversation on Christian engagement with culture.

Over a series of posts, I will be discussing how some key Christians in history engaged their culture with the gospel. These five categories will provide the vocabulary for those posts.

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  • Michael Cook

    Thank you for sharing these different perspectives on how I as a Christian can engage with the culture. It would seem to me that the perspective of Christ transforming the culture is superior to the others. Christianity’s history has been one of cultural transformation. From raising the treatment of women in society to ending slavery, Christians have taken the lead. Today however many Christians seem to be taking the perspective of withdrawing from the culture as Christian principles are more and more redefined or rejected by our society. How, do I an individual help turn the tide without being accused of being “out of step” with cultural norms?

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