Book Response: Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr

As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.

Christ and Culture

Christ and Culture. Expanded Edition. 25th Anniversary. H. Richard Niebuhr (Harper & Row, 1975).

Christ and Culture. H. Richard Niebuhr. Originally published in 1951.

Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) is a 20th century classic built upon a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (1949). In “Acknowledgements,” Niebuhr shares, “If I think of my essay as an effort to correct Troeltsch’s analyses of the encounters of church and world it is mostly because I try to understand this historical relativism in the light of theological and theo-centric relativism” (xii). In James M. Gustafson’s “Preface: An Appreciative Interpretation,” one reads critiques and affirmations of Christ and Culture. Does one side with critics such as Evangelical historian George Marsden who finds Niebuhr’s categories “simply not historically adequate” and his definition of culture, i.e., “anything people do together,” insufficient (xxii)? Or advocates such as Yale theologian James M. Gustafson who declare ideal types to be “heuristic devices to enable readers to understand materials and issues to which they refer” (xxvi)?

As Gustafson explores in his preface, Niebuhr’s five Christ and Culture categories continue to make sense to the larger public:

  • Christ Against Culture,
  • Christ of Culture,
  • Christ Above Culture,
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox, and
  • Christ the Transformer of Culture.

Christ and Culture’s ideal-typical method offers a platform to begin a conversation about “The Enduring Problem” regarding “the relations of Christianity and civilization” (1). The inclusion of Niebuhr’s Types of Christian Ethics (1942) provides a beneficial introduction to the ideal-typical method and summary of his direction. With regard to Christ and Culture itself, as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship I embrace an Evangelical conversionist approach of Christ the Transformer of Culture. Yes, I have hosted and enjoy interacting with Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, who served with InterVarsity and now writes pieces such as Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Powerand Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing for InterVarsity Press. But this is not easy in Lancaster County, PA, an Anabaptist center of Christ Against Culture.

Giving it further thought, I acknowledge that some of my culture making optimism has declined.  I wonder if despite my attraction to the Gospel of John’s emphasis on the incarnation of the Word (198) and the Augustinian Creation-Fall-Regeneration paradigm (208), the dualism of Christ and Culture in Paradox attracts me. Am I allured to Manichaean Christianity informed by childhood longing to enter the Star Wars paradigm? Maybe, but more relevantly I wrestle with the paradox of law and grace, divine wrath and mercy (157). In digging into the complexity of Luther’s position, Marsden’s historical critique applies (170-180), “Martin Luther is most representative of the type, though he like Paul is too complex to permit neat identification of an historic individual with a stylized pattern” (170). We also find Niebuhr equivocating on Augustine (169).

Do I find myself bouncing between the various positions? No, despite the sincerity of the Christ Against Culture position—with much admiration for elements of the Anabaptist tradition including in my wife’s family—and my family’s Christ for Culture tradition, I find these positions too simple. As for Christ Above Culture, I am drawn to the synthesis form, but resist it due to my concern regarding “the radical evil present in all human work” (148). Christ’s transformative work is present and primary, even if at times one falls back on it being paradoxical. So, despite the definitions being stretched, I find myself appreciating the overall starting framework offered by Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. Furthermore, for the most part I land in an “Evangelical” form of Christ the Transformer of Culture, e.g., Andy Crouch and Os Guinness as heirs to Augustine and Calvin instead of F.D. Maurice, with a passion to continue in this direction as part of the Kingdom of God guided by the love of God and neighbor framed in a biblical theology as offered by D.A. Carson in Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). Stay tuned. . . .

To God be the glory!

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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