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Christ makes all the difference: Christ in Christ and Culture

One of the greatest critiques of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is that, although he makes a distinction between Christ and culture, Christ doesn’t play much into this. Some, such as Yoder, say Niebuhr’s low view of Christ makes him irrelevant to the discussion. Others say that Christ is irrelevant because you can’t separate Christ from culture. I disagree.

From my read of Niebuhr’s book, Christ makes all the difference. This is especially true regarding one of the largest distinctions in the categories- extreme versus centrist views. In making a distinction between these views, he necessarily states that the Christ Against Culture perspective has something in common with the Christ of Culture view- which would otherwise be diametrically opposed to one another. While one advocates complete withdraw from the sinful world, the other says we should be more like the world around it (to the point of making Christ just like the world). What do these two views have in common? According to Niebuhr- their low view of Christ.

When I say “low view of Christ” I am not necessarily accusing them of a low Christology. What I am saying is that Christ is less important to them than culture. Both extreme positions are so consumed with how they should or shouldn’t interact with their culture, Christ’s identity becomes less important even to the point of being ignored. It is less important to them who Christ is than what they should do in their world. It is in this sense they have a low view of Christ. Now relegating Christ to a second-class seat to culture could very well affects their Christology (or is it indicative of their Christology)- so some might not believe in a high-Christology.

On the other hand the centrist perspectives share a higher Christology. Christ is important to them (probably because they have a higher Christology) so he has an influence on how they interact with their world. Such a high-Christology includes his divinity and humanity (hypostatic union) which is irrevocably connected with a strong belief in sin and redemption. These beliefs influence the way they interact with culture, whether it is a primary concern with eternal things (over earthly things that the extreme perspectives focus on) or in an attempt to be like this higher-Christ to attempt to redeem the world by transforming it into a better place.

In other words, if you have a higher importance in theology you will be in the centrist camp; lower importance would be in the extreme perspectives. At the same time if you place a higher importance in the world you will be pro-culture such as Christ of Culture or Christ Above Culture; conversely if the world is less important to you, you would better be characterized as Christ Against Culture or Christ and Culture in Paradox. Only a few who keep the balance between placing too much or less importance in the world while holding a higher importance to theology could be characterized as Christ Transforming Culture.

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