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).”

How Can We Know That We Know What We Know?

Here is a quick summary of some of N.T. Wright’s epistemological proposal in his 1992 The New Testament and the People of God. The excerpts below are fairly standard stuff in evangelicalism now, I’d say, but I found all of it quite helpful. After this material Wright gets a little more controversial with his proposals about the importance of story.

This is all part of Part 2, “Tools for the Task”: “A fresh examination of what a contemporary Christian literary, historical, and theological project might look like.”

Wright says we’ve got to examine our presuppositions. “The problems which we encounter in the study of literature, history and theology all belong together. Each reflects, in the way appropriate to its own area, the basic shape of the problem of knowledge itself.” 31We can’t just default to positivism or phenomenalism.

  • Positivists assume that “they know things ‘straight’,” that they “have instant access to raw data about which they simply make true propositions on the basis of sense-experience. Since it is obvious that not all human knowledge is of this type, the sorts of knowledge that break the mould are downgraded: classically, within positivism this century, metaphysics and theology come in for this treatment. Since they do not admit of verification, they become belief, not knowledge…. There are some things…for which we have (in principle) a god’s-eye view, and others for which all we have are prejudices and whims.” 33 Such a view “accords well with the prevailing Western worldview which gives pre-eminent value to scientific knowing and technological control and power while relativizing the intangible values and belief-systems of human society.” 33
  • Phenomenalism says that “the only thing of which I can really be sure when confronted by things in (what seems to be) the external world are my own sense-data.” 34

Wright proposes “critical realism.” “This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).” 35

Three things critical realism takes account of in the process of knowing:

  1. “The observer is looking from one point of view, and one only.”
  2. All humans inevitably and naturally interpret the information received from their senses through a grid of expectations, memories, stories, psychological states, and so on.” This is the concept of worldview, a little more involved than point-of-view.
  3. Where I stand and the (metaphorical) lenses through which I look have a great deal to do with the communities to which I belong…. Every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations, anxieties.” 36 (emphasis mine)


Proverbs 20:11

Legend: “PN:” = “Personal Note”

Proverbs 20:11 reads in the KJV,

Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.

But translations can differ widely in their rendering of this verse.

It seems like the NET and HCSB are safe in rendering נער (“child” in the KJV) if you look at how the word is used not just in Proverbs but in the rest of the Bible—though the word has an even broader range (from baby Moses to 13-year-old Ishmael to 17-year-old Joseph and beyond):

NET Even a young man is known by his actions, whether his activity is pure and whether it is right.

CSB Even a young man is known by his actions—by whether his behavior is pure and upright.

Waltke (NICOT) takes a view which lands him in the distinct minority, judging by the dozens of translations in various languages which agree instead with the KJV! The JPS Tanakh comes closest to his view: “A child may be dissembling in his behavior Even though his actions are blameless and proper.”

He argues that the traditional translation “fails”:

  • It does not account well for the גם (“even”). PN: But couldn’t I write “Even by his deeds a young man is known”?
  • It makes “deeds” neutral despite that word’s negative connotation everywhere else in Scripture. PN: But Waltke’s just not correct here. In a quick search I found two places in the psalms where the word refers to God’s deeds! And though the word is assumed to be negative in some of the verses I checked, more frequently it is collocated with רעה (“evil”), as in “the evil of their deeds.”
  • It makes yitnakker a reflexive of the Hiphil, not the Piel. PN: I think I have to buy this argument. It appears to match what Holladay and BibleWorks say about the parsing and meaning.
  • You would expect, “Whether it be pure or whether it be evil,” not “Whether it be pure or whether it be right.” PN: No, see Steveson’s cross reference to Josh 22:22.

WBC comments on the JPS Tanakh option but doesn’t argue for a particular rendering.

Garrett (NAC) is trenchant:

The translation of v. 11 is not altogether clear, but the thrust of the verse is conspicuous. Conduct is the best proof of character in a child. Certainly no child who says, “I am well behaved” will find his or her words taken at face value. People will evaluate the child by how he or she behaves. The implication is that appearances and words can be deceiving; behavior is a better criterion of judgment.

A footnote mentions that גם can mean “even” as an intensifier (like και) so “It is mainly his doings that distinguish a child” is best.

Keil & Delitzsch entertain the possibility that the TNK is right, but they dismiss that rendering as untrue to experience.

Steveson (BJUP) brings up a helpful point: Josh 22:22 uses the …אם…אם (if… if…) construction without implying contrast. He also says גם applies to the whole sentence, giving it all emphasis. I’m still just not following that, though. He gives no example.

Matthew Henry ends up taking it as the opposite from what the TNK does:

Children will discover themselves. One may soon see what their temper is, and which way their inclination leads them, according as their constitution is. Children have not learned the art of dissembling and concealing their bent as grown people have.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary sees the verse as saying that you can’t just listen to a child’s words; you have to watch how he acts.


So… You dig through all your exegesis, looking at the text first, the lexical and grammatical helps next, your most Hebrew-intensive commentators next, and your other commentators last, just to see what their sense was.

And you come to… and you come to… some hard choices you don’t have the capacity to make. You understand the commentators’ reasoning (as far as it is possible to understand them when sometimes they are just a bit muddleheaded), but no one really seems to nail it. Garrett at least doesn’t pretend that the answer is easy. He aims for the gist. I like that.

The best I can do is “Even by his deeds an adolescent dissembles; so is his work pure or right?”

But if nothing really satisfies, you have to save your notes and table it till a later time. Lord willing you’ve already asked for illumination. Ask again and table it. Who knows what insight the Lord may later provide. And remember that Peter through inspiration admitted that some parts of the Scripture (he named Paul’s writings) are “hard to be understood.” Clarity is “hard-won” sometimes. May God let me win clarity on this verse in the future!

Bible Typography

TNIV & Popularity Contest

DISCLAIMER: I’m still not in favor of the TNIV’s systematic and subtle—what can I call it?—twisting of gender renderings. Please see Grudem for more. But I do think educated American Christians should use the multiple translations at their disposal, and I am particularly excited about the verseless format of the TNIV edition I’m about to recommend to you (again). If you know Greek and/or Hebrew you’re not going to be led astray by reading the TNIV; you can always check its accuracy for yourself.

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Popularity Contest

I’d like to see how many people I can persuade to follow my example and get an edition of the TNIV “Books of the Bible.” That’s the one with no chapter or verse numbers. I’m reading through it this year myself and I’m in Isaiah. It’s been a great experience to read without my mind being stopped subtly by extraneous markings.

If I can get 10 or 11 readers in the Greenville, SC orbit (like a tight orbit to avoid hassle) to go in with me, you’ll save $6 on each copy. You’ll get it for $9 instead of $15. I’m paying the extra 2 cents for each of you. You’re welcome. =)

Comment on this post or send me an e-mail if you want in. If you’re a ministerial student you might as well have a copy of the TNIV—and you might as well have this neato edition.

UPDATE: The signups are coming! Let me know if you’d like two. I think this would make a great gift, and I’m planning to keep some for my (eventual, Lord willing) kids.

UPDATE 2: I put the order in on faith so the Bibles would come before school is out. Sign up fast before the slots are all taken! Just six left!