Recent Posts
A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and [more]
We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so [more]
Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience [more]
A polarized debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience [more]
I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a position with G3 Ministries  [more]

2008 Mid-America Conference on Preaching, Part 8

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Dave Doran’s First General Session
Part 3 – Horn and Conley’s General Sessions
Part 4 – Dawson on Culture
Part 5 – Snoeberger on Culture
Part 6 – Doran’s Second General Session
Part 7 – McCune on Mars Hill

D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited: A Reflection and a Response – Mark Snoeberger

The fourth workshop I attended was a review of Carson’s recent book on culture. I am about half way through reading the book myself, and have enjoyed it thus far, so I was interested in the session. The following is a summary.

Carson’s book is something of a review of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, and influential book on the subject of culture, published in 1951. Carson demonstrates that Niebuhr’s work is not completely satisfactory in discussing culture, although it is a helpful reference point considering its influence.

Niebuhr is a transitional figure between neo-orthodoxy and neo-liberalism. His career spans a transitional period in the prevailing definition of culture, and he is prone to equivocation. His theological stance places him outside of evangelicalism. So his view of Christ may be a bit skewed.

Carson needs little introduction. Snoeberger is generally in agreement with the book.

Niebuhr in Review

Niebuhr is referenced by many, read by relatively few, and studied by still fewer. Niebuhr attempts to lay out a taxonomy of social engagement.

Christ Against Culture argues that non-Christian culture is totally corrupt, and we must separate ourselves completely from it.

Christ of Culture argues that culture is generally good, and the Church should accommodate what is best in culture for Christian ends.

Christ Above Culture argues that the good that culture possesses independently of Christ must be cultivated by Christ’s higher ethic until the latter is completely embraced.

Christ Transforming Culture argues that Christ must be integrated into all arenas of the natural order.

Christ and Culture in Paradox argues that a Christian is simultaneously tugged by both forces.

Carson’s Critique of Niebuhr

Carson has a lot of reservations about Niebuhr’s taxonomy. First Carson is convinced that Niebuhr’s theological commitments threaten to abort the discussion from the very start. Niebuhr’s aim at comprehensiveness is too successful. His analysis embraces too many groups as “Christian” including Catholics and Liberals.

Second, Carson finds Niebuhr’s taxonomy both excessively partitioned and too reductionist. He is obligated to force historical figures into the various types as so many square pegs into round holes.

Third, Carson charged Niebuhr with neglect of the canonical plotline of biblical theology. This leads Carson to discuss one of his more insightful contributions to the discussion — the role of “turning points” in the biblical plotline as determinative in establishing an integrated theology of culture. He argues that too much emphasis on one turning point or another leads to various stances in Niebuhr’s taxonomy.

Fourth, Carson chastens Niebuhr for not accounting for postmodern theology in his typology. Of course, postmodernism was not around when Niebuhr wrote, but this proves that his taxonomy is not as exhaustive and timeless as it purports to be. Thus Carson seeks to correct Niebuhr’s approach with postmodernism in mind. Carson’s method is at least informed by postmodernism. Gone are the rigid categories typical of modernism. In its place is a fluid approach. His approach is more occasional than Niebuhr’s, similar to NT epistolary literature.

Fifth, Carson suggests that Niebuhr sometimes equivocates in his use of terms. One does not always know the way Niebuhr is using “Christ” or “Church” or “Culture.”

Defining Christ, Culture, and the Audience in Niebuhr and Carson

Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as much as between two sources of authority as they compete within culture. Further, Niebuhr fails to answer the locus of Christian authority for believers living today. For us, of course, it is Scripture.

This brings us to the identity of culture, which Carson discusses at length. Carson defines culture in a way that is in serious danger of being lost in postmodern society — that the religious values that mark a given culture may be good or evil and, consequently, that some cultures may be better or worse than others. Cultural studies have for decades argued neutrality, and any valid theology of culture must resist this. Some cultures borrow from the Christian worldview, and others do not. This is not an expression of elitism, but an acknowledgment that thoroughly secularized cultures are inferior to those that have resisted secularization.

Unfortunately, Carson seems to use a definition of culture that runs contrary to what he has said about culture. No time to further discussion this.

What we have in culture are a barrage of mixed values combining to create a culture. Further, some cultures that reject culture nonetheless borrow some values from the Christian worldview because of common grace. This makes the identification of a master model of cultural engagement difficult.

Now we turn to ask Niebuhr and his audience the identity of their audience. Niebuhr doesn’t identify his audience. Carson doesn’t restrict his discussion, but he does articulate a tension, and correctly notes that a theology of engagement for an individual is different than engagement for a church. This is an important guard against the social gospel.

On Carson and Critical Thinking

The fourth chapters is one of the most fascinating and helpful in the book. It functions as something of a case study in critical/philosophical thinking on some rather significant cultural issues. Carson calls on his readers to think globally and biblically about cultural forces.

For instance, Carson critiques the American tendency to regard democracy as a form of government morally superior to other forms of government. Democracy argues that man in general is good. Carson notes that when a society becomes thoroughly secularized, democracy can develop into something of a trap for Christians for which there is no hope of a coup to bring relief. In this case, democracy proves to be a scourge to the Church. In secular democracies Christians tend to surrender religious freedom to the secular, democratic “state,” but do so in such a way that Christians actually end up approving that loss.

This specific disregard for the differences between shifting American values and fixed Christian values is but one example of the many subtle forces that dull Christian thinking. To counter these, Carson presses the need for believers to engage in discernment, that is, in critical, analytical, and philosophical thinking and living within their respective cultures. It is call to discern values that underly practices.

This is why Carson reacts so severely to Niebuhr’s idea of a “master model” of cultural engagement. He wants a theology of cultural engagement that operates on the level of discerned values, not observed practices.

Response and Proposal

Snoeberger has a few minor quibbles with Carson’s treatment: (1) Carson is a bit harder on Niebuhr than is merited since Niebuhr admits that his typology is not something to which anyone wholly conforms.

(2) Carson’s eschatology is more “realized” than Scripture permits. Thus, his emphasis on new covenant and kingdom themes is more pronounced than Snoeberger’s, and his anticipation of cultural renewal consequently more optimistic. his substantial “already” emphasis energizes a measure of hope for cultural renewal today.

(3) While Snoeberger agrees that a consistent “master model” of cultural engagement cannot be crafted on the level of practice, he is convinced there are enough guiding principles to generate a sort of values-driven cohesion to the Christian’s response to culture.

There are two levels of cultural engagement — practice and values. On the level of practice, engagement seems somewhat erratic. But a corresponding theology of cultural engagement at the values level explains those inconsistencies and creates a coherent “master model” of cultural engagement. This is illustrated in Paul’s exchange with the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 8—10. Paul is not dealing on the level of practice alone; he is dealing on the level of values. Therefore his practice seems somewhat erratic, but when viewed through his evaluation of values, it makes perfect sense.

This exchange presents a basic theology of cultural engagement:

(1)Believers should courageously resist cultural practices that are intrinsically evil.
(2)Believers should eschew cultural practices that are intrinsically good and even biblically sanctioned if they stem from and actively promote unbiblical and/or non-theistic values.
(3)Believers should exercise humble reserve in their response to cultural practices that are intrinsically good and even biblically sanctioned if they might be perceived as promoting unbiblical and non-theistic values.
(4)Believers may, however, adopt cultural practices that stem directly from common-grace values.

Carson’s more or less consistent praise of Abraham Kuyper and in particular the Klass Schilder’s variation of Kuyper’s methodology suggests that Carson finds the Kuper/Schilder model closer to the “master model” than any of Niebuhr’s five taxons. Snoeberger resonates with this favorable treatment and proposes that a revival in interest in their ideas is well worth our time.


The discernment of the church at large has been made dull by the assumption of benignity and neutrality in the dominant cultures of this world, and it is high time to rein in the church’s embrace of worldliness as it rushes eagerly toward the world under the banner of contextualized relevancy. We must never become so eager to contextualize and acculturate that we fail to press the antitheses that the Gospel demands.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.