Christ and Culture Revisited: Carson’s Summary of Niebuhr’s Taxonomy (5)

The final three views in Niebuhr’s five-fold taxonomy are all forms of “Christ above culture.”

5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

Summary: While the previous two views were respectively synthetic (Christ above culture) and dualistic (Christ and culture in paradox), this view is “conversionist.” And, as Carson points out, Niebuhr is not foregrounding individual conversion but conversion of the entire culture. “What distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture” (Niebuhr, 191).

This more positive attitude comes from three convictions:

  1. “Creation is not only the setting for redemption, but the sphere in which God’s sovereign, ordering, work operates” (Carson, 26).
  2. The fall was “moral and personal, not physical and metaphysical, though it does have physical consequences” (Niebuhr, 194).
  3. The conversionist view of history “holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men” (Niebuhr, 194).

Exemplars: Augustine (partial), Calvin (partial), F.D. Maurice.

Counterargument: Carson notes that Niebuhr never gives a counterargument to this view, so many have assumed that this is his personal view.

Carson adds in his chapter-two critique that Niebuhr’s use of John to support this view is suspect. The fact that the Λογος created everything does not make “whatever is” good, because sin has since entered and distorted that original good.

In addition, Carson says, what is this view but the absolutizing of one motif in Scripture? God’s plan to restore the world through a cataclysmic event (Christ’s return) becomes universalism: the view that “everything gradually gets better by the grace of the gospel” (Carson, 38).

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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