Conflicting Christian approaches to Culture is not a new phenomenon. The Hebrews themselves struggled with the issue even though as a theocracy, religion and culture were theoretically inseparable in the nation of Israel. Even so, more often than not the Hebrews failed to relate biblically to the nations around them, and their perpetual syncretism led to their eventual demise.
With the birth of the church, however, biblical religion and national identify became distinct, and thus the struggle of how to relate to culture entered a new and perhaps more difficult phase. The story of this struggle provides the historical material in which different Christian approaches to culture find their justification. Thus a brief survey of this struggle will set a discussion of these approaches in their proper historical context.
Likely one of the most influential works to articulate the different Christian approaches to culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s monumental Christ and Culture.1
Niebuhr names five “ideal types” that have become standard in such discussions: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. His second type is outside the bonds of this series since it essentially assumes that Christianity itself is merely a product of culture. This leaves four evangelical types, which summarize the general positions to be explored in this section. Christ against culture represents the most extreme position and will characterize the radical reformers and their grandchildren. The opposite extreme is Christ above culture, which is essentially the Christendom position detailed next week. In the middle are the two predominant views that have come to characterize post-Christendom Protestantism: Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture. In the first category Niebuhr lists Martin Luther, and this type describes what has come to be generally called the two-kingdom doctrine; in the second he includes Augustine and John Calvin, a position known more commonly as the transformationalist view. As the discussion next week will reveal, these categorizations are often debated, yet the types do provide helpful descriptions of what occurred historically. Post-Christendom Evangelical approaches to culture are largely a debate between the two-kingdom advocates and the transformationalists.
Next week, I’ll provide a brief historical sketch of these approaches to culture.