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Christ and Culture: A Primer

One of the major focuses of this blog is the typology developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, Christ and Culture. I think Niebuhr’s paradigm offers us a common vocabulary as we discuss how we as Christians should engage the world around us. I also hope that this will help people outside the Christian perspective to better understand the different ways Christians engage the world around them (like any group, there is a wide diversity of opinion).

Introductory Articles

Here are some suggested articles if you are just getting into Christ and Culture.

Why read Niebuhr?

The first place you might start is why we would still be reading Niebuhr today. Marsden, in an article written for the fiftieth anniversary of Niebuhr’s Book, explains why he thinks the book is still valuable despite the criticisms against it.

One of the suggestions Marsden does make is that instead of saying “Christ and Culture” we should say “Christian and Culture.” This is because there isn’t a Kantian-diachotomy between Christ and culture, instead sometimes our culture affects our view of Christ. This cultural view of Christ becomes our form of Christianity which is what we are studying in the first place.

In discussing why the categories aren’t always accurate, I think Marsden explains why Niebuhr was so resistant to commit to any one perspective.

One might ask then, why bother? If we all express at one time or another all of the attitudes and our attitudes are so complex, do not the categories simply leave us with a muddle? Perhaps so. But the very point is that we will be even more in a muddle without some such categories with which to talk about these complexities. The reason for the muddle is that history—like individual life—is extraordinarily complex and filled with complications and ambiguities. Such analytical categories help us to begin to sort out these complexities. They provide a workable way to think about our attitudes toward these questions amid to help evaluate what our attitudes should be. Furthermore, even though we can now see that everyone is likely to adopt all five of the attitudes. still, with respect to particular cultural questions, we can usually identify one attitude as dominant. So we really do have a clarifying set of classifications. Moreover, these classifications, or some combination of them, might be helpful in establishing rules of thumb for thinking about how we should characteristically relate to some particular types of cultural activities.

I am especially thankful for Marsden’s comments on why Niebuhr’s categories are still useful even after undergoing all the criticism and corrections. He concludes his lecture,

I should say in closing that they are introductory tools. They are useful primarily for getting people to begin thinking more clearly about these issues. Once that has happened they may want to modify the tools to suit their purposes and will likely want to keep them out of sight in their finished work. Like any typology they invite simplistic thought and too easy categorizing of other Christians. Nonetheless, if used properly, they can continue to be a rich resource for helping Christians think about their relationships to the world.

Hopkins agrees that this is an important work for us to read today.

Rather than simply “going with the flow” it is important for Christians to think critically about the culture in which we live and reflect deeply about how to engage the world in a way that honors God and furthers His ends. By doing so we will be better prepared to live out our God-given purpose for existence and find true fulfillment. This book is a great starting point for such reflection.

(Source lost; I don’t even remember who Hopkins is)


Second, we need to define some of the key concepts used in this blog. One of the limitations in Niebuhr’s book is his ambiguous definition of “culture.” Culture is one of those terms we all know but have a hard time defining. Perhaps a clearer example, for our purposes, can be made through some examples on what we all agree culture is:


  • Music- do Christian artists have to mention Jesus (such as Third Day) or can they be Christian without specifically mentioning God (U2)?
  • Literature- Does a story have to directly reference God (C. S. Lewis) or can it be more implicit (J. R. R. Tolkien)?


  • Should Christians unite to promote their cultural values in a country (The Christian Coalition) or should they stay out of politics?
  • Should a church attempt to influence its members to promote it’s moral opinions (Roman Catholic politicians must be pro-life) or should they allow them to vote according to their own conscience?


  • Should Christians impose a Judeao-Christian concept of marriage on non-Christians or can they permit homosexual unions?

On the other hand, we can try to let the Bible define culture. My favorite living theologian, John Frame, might have a more helpful definition.

What does Niebuhr mean by “Christ” in culture? One of the chief arguments against his book is his use of Christ. I think, however, that Christ is fundamental to the entire discussion. Since we are talking about how Christians view Christ and therefore conclude how they should address culture we need to define what we mean by “Christian” for this discussion as well.

We also have to define the different paradigms that Niebuhr develops to describe how different Christians address culture. The New Dictionary of Theology‘s entry on “Niebuhr, H. Richard” defines his five categories as follows:

  • Christ Against Culture (Opposition) Rejects the world as evil. Believers must retreat to the elect community, shunning politics, art, the military, and worldly entertainment. Revelation is preferred to ‘the whole Reason.’ Christ has given the law of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, and his disciples must live as sojourners in a foreign land.
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox (Polarity) Proposes the world as a radically corrupt, yet not abandoned by God, who has set up social structures to stem the tide of chaos. We live in this world of necessary evils as sinners justified by grace, resulting in a predominately private, personal Christian morality
  • Christ Transforming Culture (Conversionist) Sees the world as fallen, but capable of sanctification both socially and personally.
  • Christ Above Culture (Synthesist) Cultural institutions are grounded in ‘natural law,’ which is yet limited in scope. Christ’s supernatural law is revealed to enable us to reach salvation. Nature is supplemented and fulfilled by grace, both coming from Christ.
  • Christ of Culture (Agreement) Makes Christ the figurehead of one’s culture, embodying the culture’s values yet providing a basis for culture’s critique. Revelation is accommodated to reason, the line between God and the world is blurred, and Christ’s salvation is mere ‘moral influence.’

Alister McGrath defines Niebuhr’s paradigms as follows:

  1. “Christ Against Culture.” This view encourages opposition, total separation, and hostility toward culture. The values of the Kingdom of God, on this view, stand in contrast to those of the world. Anabaptists stressed the need to form alternative Christian communities, often in rural areas. They refused to have anything to do with secular power or authority, rejecting the use of force.
  2. “Christ Of Culture.” This approach is more or less the direct opposite of the previous view, in that it attempts to bring culture and Christianity together, regardless of their differences. A world-affirming approach can be found in nineteenth-century German liberal protestantism, which tended to amalgamate German culture with Christian ideals. Liberal Protestantism was inspired by the vision of a humanity which was ascending upwards into new realms of progress and prosperity. The doctrine of evolution gave new vitality to this belief.
  3. “Christ Above Culture.” This position attempts to correlate the fundamental questions of the culture with the answer of Christian revelation. The famous maxim of Thomas Aquinas can be seen as underlying this approach: “Grace does not abolish nature, but perfects it.”
  4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” This model rests on what could be described as a “dualist” approach, which holds that the Christian belongs to “two realms (the spiritual and the temporal),” and must therefore live in the tension of fulfilling responsibilities to both. Niebuhr saw Martin Luther as an excellent representative of this understanding of the relation of Christianity and culture. According to this model, the Christian community must expect to live in a degree of tension with the world. Luther set out this tension in terms of his doctrine of the “two kingdoms” – the “kingdom of the world” and the “kingdom of God.” These two very different realms of authority coexist and overlap, with the result that Christians experience the tension of living in one kingdom, yet trying to obey the authority of another.
  5. “Christ Transforming Culture.” This model includes “conversionists” who attempt to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God. Augustine, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Jonathon Edwards take similar positions.

One of the most important things to remember when considering the different perspectives is that we are not seeking to stereotype any one person into any one category. The fact is, as Guenther points out, no one person consistently lives in any one perspective. A better way of thinking of this is that as each circumstance comes along in a Christian’s life, they might approach culture in a different way.

After you begin to define some of these perspectives, some of the lines between certain perspectives become a little blury. This is especially true about the difference between Synthesis and Agreement (part 2) and Synthesis and Conversionist- the latter of which explains the biggest confusion: when Christ Transforming Culture becomes Christ of Culture. I hope these articles can help make a more clear distinction between each.

Which perspective is right?

This is difficult to answer, in one way, because Niebuhr refused to commit to any one perspective. I think that Gathje is correct, however, in saying that Niebuhr’s order of explaining the perspectives means that he thinks Christ Transforming Culture is the best way of answering the dilemma. For a good, long read you might check out my series of three articles following Niebuhr’s arguments on why there is no right answer– even though he really argues that there is a better answer.

When discussing which perspective is the “right” one, Niebuhr and I diverge sharply. I believe that the Scriptures can guide us in answering this question, while Niebuhr would not. If you want some more in depth discussion you might be interested in asking how the Old Testament sheds light on this question.

Personally, I think that the Christ Transforming Culture perspective is the most Biblical way for a Christian to address culture. But I’d still encourage you to wrestle with these categories and see where you fit.

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