[NOTE: This is the 7th in a series of posts related to Southeastern’s focus on equipping pastors. This article is written by Dr. Ken Keathley, Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture.]
In 1951, Richard Niebuhr published the classic Christ and Culture. Niebuhr explored the various ways that Christians have engaged with the world over the history of the Church, and he concluded that five distinct approaches could be discerned. He labeled them thusly:
Christ against Culture
The Christ of Culture
Christ above Culture
Christ and Culture in Paradox
Christ the Transformer of Culture
The first two approaches, Christ against Culture and The Christ of Culture are the approaches taken by Fundamentalists and Liberals, respectively. As such, the methods are polar opposites. The Christ against Culture approach focuses on the conflict between the Church and the world. Typically this approach advocates separating from culture or even society itself. By contrast, The Christ of Culture position takes note of how God is at work in the world, and advocates of this approach point to the close relationship between Christianity and western civilization. If the first approach historically has tended to isolationism, then the second approach generally has resulted in liberalism. Independent Baptists typify the first position, while the mainline denominations exemplify the second. In contrast, most Evangelicals have turned away from both approaches and have attempted to take one of the remaining three courses. Each of the remaining approaches is an attempt to engage the world in a way that remains true to Christ and the Gospel.
The Christ above Culture approach has many similarities with the Christ of Culture approach, and probably describes the tack taken by many Roman Catholics. Like the Christ of Culture view, it contends that God is working in and through culture and society, but the Christ above Culture more strongly emphasizes the necessity of divine grace.
The Christ and Culture in Paradox view has many similarities with the Christ against Culture approach, and probably describes best the approach taken by Martin Luther. Like the advocates of the Christ against Culture position, Luther stood as a prophetic voice in opposition to society. But unlike the Christ against Culture proponents, Luther continued to engage and involve himself with cultural and political structures of the world.
Last, the Christ the Transformer of Culture approach is perhaps the most optimistic of all five views, for it calls for the Church to attempt—not simply the conversion of individuals—but the conversion of society as a whole. Not surprisingly, many advocates of the Christ the Transformer of Culture approach also hold to postmillennialism. The Dutch Reformed theologian, Abraham Kuyper (who also served as the prime minister of the Netherlands) would be an example of this approach.
Which of the last three approaches presented by Niebuhr—Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture—should a pastor take? Evangelicals continue to discuss and debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each position. Personally, I find myself most in sympathy with Luther’s Christ and Culture in Paradox approach.
The Christ and Culture in Paradox position, as explained by Niebuhr, resists the temptation to accommodate the Gospel to Culture, but it does not see the battle in terms of Christian vs. pagan. Rather, the Paradox view understands the conflict to be God vs. humanity—the righteousness of God vs. the self-righteousness of humans. God’s grace is the only solution. The Paradox proponent joins the Christ against Culture proponent “in pronouncing the whole world of human culture to be godless and sick unto death,” explains Niebuhr, “But there is this difference between them: the [Paradox advocate] knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him in it and by it; for if God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment” (156).
This paradox (hence the name) comes about because the believer lives “between the times.” Christ’s kingdom has been inaugurated, and we look forward to its eventual complete arrival. This world is fading away, and we must be faithful witnesses while will live in this present age. “Living between time and eternity, between wrath and mercy, between culture and Christ, the true [Paradox advocate] finds life both tragic and joyful” (178). So the godly pastor must lead his church to the paradoxical position of engaging the world while confronting its sin, of loving humanity while convinced of humanity’s depravity, and of presenting Jesus Christ as the world’s Judge and its only Hope. That’s a tall order—one that can be accomplished only by God’s grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit.