Theology & Culture (2): Alternative Views

Over the course of my 36 year life, I’ve embraced several markedly different views of the relationship between Christianity and culture. In fact, I switched views more often than Madonna® and Prince® change public profiles. Early on, I was a cultural anorexic which soon gave way to a reaction that was something like cultural gluttony, which has now given way to what I hope is a view more resonant with the teaching of Christian Scripture.

The most influential mapping of historical models for understanding Christianity and culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ & Culture. The book is a minor theological classic, having influenced several generations of theologians with its five-fold typology. I’ll give a very brief description of his definition of culture and his typology, after which I will provide an alternative which differs from the five he mentions.

Niebuhr begins by marking out the notion of culture. He writes, “What we have in view when we deal with Christ and culture is that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech. Culture is the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. This ‘social heritage,’ this ‘reality sui generis,’ which the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of ‘the world,’ which is represented in many forms but to which Christians like other men are inevitably subject, is what we mean when we speak of culture.“*

After having defined culture he proceeds to list five ways of viewing the relationship between Christ and culture. First, he writes of the Christ against Culture model (he lists Tertullian, the Anabaptists, Tolstoy, etc., as historical proponents of this model), in which Christians are “against” culture or attempt to withdraw from the surrounding culture. Second, he describes the Christ of Culture model (Gnostics, Abelard, Locke, Schleiermacher, etc.), in which the proponents are very much at home in their cultural context, even to the point of compromising Christian essentials.

The next three models fall broadly under the rubric of “Christ above Culture,” but he keeps them in separate categories. The third model is Christ above Culture (Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), which Niebuhr describes as an attempt to synthesize Christianity and culture into a neat system. The fourth model is Christ and Culture in Paradox (Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, etc.), a dualist position which recognizes the corrupt nature of human culture and pronounces it to be godless, but realizes that we cannot remove ourselves from it. The fifth model is Christ the Transformer of Culture (Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc.), which is similar to the previous two positions but differs in that they have a more positive view toward culture, seeking to transform it rather than reject it, assimilate to it, or hold it in tension.

Niebuhr’s typology has been helpful in stimulating Christian thinking on this topic and providing some categories of discussion over the years. However, its helpfulness is limited by many factors, several of which are: (1) as Craig Carter** has pointed out, Niebuhr’s “Christ” is mystical and eternal to the extent that he is hardly incarnate; (2) as Kuyper and others would point out, he has a severely deficient view of creation and its relation to culture; (3) Niebuhr has a weak view of the church, which kept him from seeing the robust manner in which God’s redeemed community can bear witness to him on this earth; (4) Niebuhr failed to take into account that Christians probably should deal with culture in different manners depending upon our cultural contexts. It is difficult to imagine Abraham Kuyper or Richard John Neuhaus doing what they did if they lived in Tora Bora or Baghdad; and (5) as D. A. Carson*** points out, Niebuhr’s account of culture is insufficiently Christological.

If I were forced to pick one of Niebuhr’s models, I would probably choose the fifth option. But as I am not forced to do so, I will make up my own category (although it is not stated in nearly as snappy a manner as Niebuhr’s). For the purposes of this blog series, I will not talk about Christ in relation to culture, but Christians in relation to culture. As I see it, we as Christians should live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the midst of the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Our Christian communities should live in such a way as to be a foretaste of the fully realized Kingdom, a foreshadowing of our life together on a New Heavens and Earth (which itself will be a very cultural existence, replete with a city, beautiful art, embodied souls, etc.).

Does Scripture bear out such a view? Further, what would it mean to live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in relation to a cultural context? In the next installment, I will try to make a brief biblical case for the view I just articulated, and in the remaining installments, I will try to give a glimpse of what it might look like to live in such a manner.


*H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ & Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951), 32.

** Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 64-66.

***D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 44.

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  1. wlh   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    Clear and concise. Got a question. So I’m reading through Wolter’s Creation Regained per your recommendation. Loving it, and still reading it. In his chapter on “Creation” he talks about the future restoration of creation, and like you, argues for the continuity between the new heavens and the new earth and the original good creation, especially as it regards human culture. What is not clear, and I’m certain you will address this later, so I can wait for the response as necessary, is what this means for physical creation.

    I like your category, “faithfully, critically, and redemptively”, but how does this relate to physical creation, governed by, in Wolter’s categories, creational laws (juxtaposed with God’s creational norms which govern human culture)? I ask because I’m working through it.

    Thanks for your time and input!


  2. Micah Brake   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    It is interesting that as I read your article, I can categorize the “personality” of several of the Christian (Baptist) communities I have been a part of under these various headings.

    For example, a church home-school group of which I was a member for several years was entirely AGAINST culture: This group withdrew completely from culture to the extent that several of the middle-schoolers (I almost want to say most of them) still enjoyed veggie tales and Bibleman, did not know most of the popular movies or books or TV shows recently out, and, perhaps most tragically, weren’t even permitted by their parents to participate in our church Youth Group because there were “misbehaving black kids there” who “might corrupt” the children. The parents used the heisman pose to protect their “lambs” from the “wolves” of culture. And this, tragically, was a group comprised of many of the elders’ in our Montgomery, AL Southern Baptist Church. Sadly, I have found this type of attitude in more than one place I have visited during my years finding churches after my military father was reassigned and we moved.

    Another church I attended preached the fifth view, asserting that culture was “bad” but that Christ could “redeem” it. While this church sought to engage culture rather than to run from it, it seemed that it could never applaud any of the cultural products or values. All things not Christian were in need of change: Music was bad. Art was bad. Movies were bad. Books were bad. Harry Potter and Postmodernism were the devil. It was our job to “redeem” these cultural products. We held a “worldviews” class in which we learned how to critically interact/change the culture around us. Sadly, the culture around us never seemed to want to change. I guess the “you are bad” message was not an inspiring message for the local artisans and businessmen surrounding our church.

    I think a redemptive, critical, faithful witness does not run from culture, nor does it shout “you must change!” at every opportunity. It AFFIRMS those aspects of culture that reflect the heart of God — beauty, creativity, participation in an artistic history that the Lord initiated in Genesis. Christians should be the biggest supporters of the Arts, when they reflect these qualities. We should fight for the mom and pop restaurants that serve great food, and we should visit them frequently and tip well, getting to know the waiters and waitresses and owners in order to become a Christian witness for them. The same for local art galleries, coffeeshops, music gatherings.

    We must critically interact with culture when it fails to reflect the heart of God. When culture celebrates things contrary to his character, we must be ready to orient our lives and our actions in a way that can redeem these things. However, running from this type of culture is not the answer. Loving interaction with the culture-makers to the point of repentance is.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wes, great question. I’ll address it in brief in part four of the series. But for starters, we live in an “already, not yet” era in which we are to live as a foretaste of the realized Kingdom. In our relation to the created order, we can do so by appreciating God’s good creation and not trashing it (but the created order itself will not be restored until the end). In our relation to culture, which arises from our interaction with God’s good creation, we seek to shape it, engage it, and live redemptively in the midst of it, as a foreshadowing of the redeemed culture that will flourish on a new heavens and earth. As for creational laws vs. creational norms, lets discuss that over coffee!

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Micah, thanks for your extended and insightful reply. You seemed to have lived within several of the models we mentioned! You are headed in a direction with which I agree. I’m interested to see if you agree with the biblical theology of culture that I’ll propose over the next two installments.

  5. Brad V   •  

    I’d love to scrap with you over what you’re writing, but it’s all spot on. You get an “amen” from me and the peanut gallery. Keep writing my friend. I hope people, by reading your series, will get a bigger view of theology, culture, and God’s mission in the world.

  6. Doug   •  

    I too have flip-flopped on this issue and at one time was quite taken by how well Tim Keller articulated the need for the church to be about transforming culture (or as he puts it, bringing “shalom” to the city, etc.). But then I spent a good deal of time trying to justify it Scripturally and came up with little to go on- much less than I would have assumed.

    I then read “Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and Not Yet” by Jason Stellman with must interest. I found his arguments to be clear, well thought out and tethered to the Scriptures. I had been reading some of Darryl Hart’s writings on Two Kingdom Theology as a type of curiosity, but Stellman introduced me to it as a legitimate option. Have you read it (or other works like it) and what are your thoughts (critiques) of Two Kingdom Theology? Thanks.

  7. Jim Upchurch   •  

    Looking forward to reading more! I’m a bit uncomfortable with the “living redemptively” part, but I’ll withhold judgment until you explain what you mean. Chalk it up to my “two kingdoms” view leanings. Speaking of which, are you planning on discussing/interacting with that view?

  8. Elizabeth   •  

    Enjoying your series, as well as Keller!

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Doug and Jim, thanks for reading and making some incisive comments. If you’ll allow me to do so, I’d like to defer my answer on the “two kingdoms” issue until the next two installments come out, which provide a very basic biblical theology of culture. Those should provide a little bit more clarity about what I am saying and not saying. Please stay tuned and let me know your thoughts.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Brad and Elizabeth, thanks for your gracious comments. Please stay tuned.

  11. Jason Mitchell   •  

    By the “Christian Community” do you mean the local church? I am pretty sure I agree with you with most of where you are so far, I am just struggling with the line of integration into the local church. I recognize that believer’s have a responsibility to engage culture while scattered, I just am struggling to understand how much the local church should be officially involved.
    For example, what should the local church encourage believers to do and what should the local church embrace and tie it’s name to.

  12. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, great question. When I say “church” or “redeemed community” I am often referring both to local and universal church. In a nutshell, God works (culturally) through the church gathered and through the church scattered, and through the church local and the church universal, but in different ways. For example, he works through believers’ vocations in ways that he does not work through the local church’s assembled worship times. If I can find time to do it, I’ll try to add an installment to this blog series so that I can answer good questions like the one you just asked.

  13. Pingback: Theology & Culture (2): Paradigms | For Christ and Culture

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