Christ and Culture Revisited: Carson’s Summary of Niebuhr’s Taxonomy (1)

Here is a summary of Carson’s summary of what is, in sum, the most influential taxonomy of relationships Christians take to culture. I’m speaking, of course, of H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. And Carson’s book is, of course, Christ and Culture Revisited.

Note: Some exemplars are such only partially, and some are added by Carson to Niebuhr’s list.

1. Christ against Culture

Summary: This view “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects the cultures’ claims to loyalty” (Niebuhr, 45).

For the Christian, political life must be shunned, and so also military service, philosophy, and the arts. Of course, learning is important for the believer, so “learning literature is allowable for believers” (55, citing [Tertullian’s] On Idolatry x), but not teaching it, since teaching it enmeshes the teacher in commending the literature, with the result that one ends up commending and affirming “the praises of idols interspersed therein” (55)

Exemplars: Tertullian, some Mennonite groups, early Quakers, later writings of Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Stanley Hauerwas (and, says Niebuhr, Revelation and 1 John).

Counterarguments: “In almost every utterance Tertullian makes evident that he is a Roman, so nurtured in the legal tradition and so dependent on philosophy that he cannot state the Christian case without their aid” (Niebuhr, 69-70).

  1. “There is a tendency in such radical movements to use ‘reason’ to refer to the methods and contest of knowledge within the ‘culture,’ and ‘revelation’ to refer to their own Christian faith.”
  2. “These radicals give the impression that sin abounds in the culture, while light and piety attach themselves to Christians,” but life isn’t that simple.
  3. “This position often seeks to defend itself with new laws, new rules of conduct, that are so unbending and so precise that grace itself seems demoted to a second or third tier.”
  4. “The ‘knottiest theological problem’ with this position, according to Niebuhr, is ‘the relation of Jesus Christ to the creator of nature and Governor of history as well as to the Spirit immanent in creation and in the Christian community’ (80-81).”

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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