Thursday, March 16, 2006

Christ, Christians, and Culture

As I've surfed around my buddies blogs this week, I notice that I'm not the only one delinquent in posting recently. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who's been swamped this week.

Here's some more overflow from Senionr Sem. Our topic this week was Anthropology and I thought I'd begin a conversation on Culture (mostly to sharpen my own thinking). So, once again, I have an excurses. I'd love your thoughts and I warn you ahead of time, mine still need some clearing up.

COMING SOON - the hot topic today was not culture, but rather the Imago Dei (did I spell that right?). I'm curious to hear some additional thoughts on what some of you think. I'll probably post my position tomorrow afternoon or Saturday. Though I thought I was advancing the view of Hoekema and Bavinck, it appears several of us may have accidently formulated a modification of it.

PS one more thing - I'd still like to continue the talk on Breaking fellowship. I'm planning on following up on my Italian Friend's comment (i.e. "Ciao Babe"), but I'm surprised no one else has yet. Check out his comments if you haven't read them yet.

XXVI. Excurses on Culture

1. Introduction. Similar to my excurses on breaking fellowship, this material is exploratory in nature. I have long been fascinated by the consideration of how Christ and Christians relate to Culture, but have never put any thoughts on paper. Therefore, this is not my final word on Culture, but rather a first step.

2. Niebuhr’s Definition and Distinctions. Though the existence of culture is an almost universally recognized reality, it is nonetheless difficult to define. The word culture does not appear in the scriptures, but the Bible is far from silent on the matter. Therefore, in order to evaluate any theological paradigm on the basis of Scripture, one must first articulate a paradigm. Richard Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture[1] has proved to be one of the most influential books on the topic written from a “Christian” perspective and has in many ways shaped the parameters of the discussion in recent decades. He identifies the following elements with the concept of culture:

· It is social – It’s bound up with man’s life in society.

· It is human achievement – It can be distinguished from nature by observing the evidences of human “purposiveness” and effort.

· It is comprised of values – That for which effort is expended and is done with a purpose is likely designed to serve a perceived good.

· It is concerned with the temporal and material realization of these values.

· It is concerned with the conservation or preservation of such values – since the material and temporal perish, much energy is expended to preserve what is made and accomplished.

· It is pluralistic – Not in the relativistic sense, but rather the values that a culture seeks to realize at any given time are many in number.

Some of the wording above is paraphrased; much of it is Niebuhr’s own wording. See pages 29-44. Though this description is not exhaustive, I do not find anything to object to and therefore deem it a good starting point. Perhaps more familiar is his five-fold list of typical responses to culture:

· Opposition between Christ and Culture

· Agreement between Christ and Culture

· Christ above Culture

· Christ and Culture in Paradox

· Christ the Transformer of Culture

The first two are obviously polar opposites, while he argues the latter three are different attempts to reconcile the first two. Though he takes significant space to develop each of these options and identifies individuals in church history who have advanced them, there is a statement in his conclusion that is very telling:

Yet it must be evident that neither extension nor refinement of study could bring us to the conclusive result that would enable us to say, ‘This is the Christian answer.’ Reader as well as writer is doubtless tempted to essay such a conclusion; for it will have become as evident to the one as to the other that the types (his five possible responses) are by no means wholly exclusive of each other, and that there are possibilities of reconciliation at many points among the various positions.[2]

3. Conclusion. At this level, all of the observations seem satisfactory. While Niebuhr would certainly apply things differently, the structure of his paradigm is coherent. Some of his description of culture would overlap with what the New Testament writers refer to as the world (ko,smoj). The world, particularly in John, is frequently described as antagonistic to God and His agenda. Believers are instructed not to love the world - 1 John 2:15-17 15 “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.” It is these wicked aspects of the world that the believer is to shun. However, there is also a sense in which some of Niebuhr’s description does not overlap with the “world”. There are ways in which some of these elements of culture reflect God’s creative intention and design. For example, the fact that man is social is not a product of circumstantial conditioning, but rather a reflection of the created order - Genesis 2:18 18 “Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." Likewise, in the community of the redeemed - 1 Peter 1:22 “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.” The purification is eivj filadelfi,an. Again, values are good and important, though we would say they must be shaped by Scripture. We do desire to see the fruit of our values realized in time and we seek to preserve them through institutions (churches, seminaries, conferences, publications, etc.). However, it is imperative to recognize that Jesus RADICALLLY transforms all of these values and societies. Thus, in many ways secular culture is a parody of Christian culture. Therefore, at times we will need to oppose culture - Ephesians 5:11 “And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” At times we are to agree with our culture, in as much as it reflects common grace and the divine image. This includes things like the condemnation of wicked acts such as murder and genocide and the promotion of justice. While believers may not ever be transcendent (above) culture, without question God is (though He is also present in it) - Isaiah 57:15 “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, "I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” The forensic nature of justification unpacked in Romans 3-4 reflects the paradoxical nature of Christ and the Christian and culture (though this is leaning heavily on Niebuhr’s statements; I need more clarification here). Finally, as has been noted above, Christ (and His ambassadors) transform their culture -2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Though the point of this passage is that the individual is renewed, his renewal (which is brought about by Christ) bleeds over (or at least should) into his surroundings. Likewise, the church is a community of those whose culture has been radically transformed by the Gospel. However, since they are still “in the world” but not “of it” they will impact their surrounding culture. By way of conclusion: There is still more to be said and thought through; nevertheless at this point suffice it to say that Niebuhr’s paradigm is workable providing one recognizes that there is no easy answer to every question. Even the principles and conclusions outlined above are extremely general. Thus, the Christian can, should and will interact with and engage his culture one way or another. The need is for Scripture informed, Spirit led discernment.

[1] Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).

[2] Ibid, 231.


jeileenbaylor said...

mihelis- do you even work during the day?! I mean, you posted this in the middle of the day! You are ridiculous. You are not going to know what to do when you have a REAL job :o)
p.s. good post though/

Anonymous said...

Nate, this is some good stuff, I picked up Niebuhr from the library over Christmas break, but didn't get past the first chapter. You make we want to get back to him - maybe in the summer...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was Annalisa

NWMihelis said...


Thanks. I actually found Niebuhr for $2 while antiquing with my in laws. It made the trip worthwhile :-) Though I haven't read it cover to cover, in my experience thus far, the first chapter and then his concluding chapter (A Non Scientific Conclusion, or something like that) is the most valuable. I read his chapter on Transforming Culture and was frustrated by his lack of appeal to biblical texts. Some of his conclusions were a little wacky too. However, it was his categorizations and paradigm that I found most valuable. Much of the conclusions (And the wrestling that needs to be done to arrive at them) still remains to be done by evangelicals.


David said...

well, I'm going to have to plod through that post. steak and po-ta-toes.
regarding imago dei: hugely important, nearly undefinable. It is not any one thing but rather the sum of things most positions note. It is not another thing (i.e. creativity, self-awareness), it simply is.

Anonymous said...

If you are interested in the Christ and Culture paradigm, check out a survey I wrote to help people find themselves in the various positions.

NWMihelis said...

BTW, who are you?

I like the survey; if you don't mind, I was thinking about linking it as a new post (people often don't read the comments on older posts).

Anonymous said...

by all means, post a link to my survey! I would love to generate some more discussion about it on my blog!

NWMihelis said...

You've still neglected to identify yourself. Who are you and what is your blog url?

DZ said...

There, now I am no longer anonymous: David Zimmerman and my blog is

Come by for a visit sometime and leave a comment or two of your own!

Heck- everyone's welcome!