One of the most obscure things about Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is his definition of “culture.” Niebuhr claims that his use of “culture” is the same as the New Testament’s use of “world.” Is that true?
Let’s turn to the Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology to attempt to understand what the Bible means by “world” in order to more fully understand what Niebuhr means by “culture”.
Before we undergo this project, we have to admit some limitations. First of all Niebuhr limits “culture” as the equivalent to “world” in the New Testament specifically. The source we are using here takes a much broader perspective to defining “world”- encompassing the entire Bible, not limited to the New Testament. I would argue that the New Testament’s understanding of this concept is based upon the Old Testament’s, rather than make such a distinction between the two parts of the cannon. This betray’s Niebuhr’s German bias against the Old Testament, which I have talked about before in this blog.
If we want to understand what Niebuhr meant by “culture” then we need to not only limit this definition to the New Testament, but somehow get into his head to know what parts of the New Testament he is specifically referring to. Everyone has their own particular bias, so the question becomes what part of Niebuhr’s bias comes through as he attempts to define “culture” from the New Testament. Frankly, I try to avoid reading people’s minds if at all possible, so I will give up on this prospect. Consequently, I will be content to use this resource’s definition of “world” as a starting point to understand how we can use the word “culture” in our discussions.
This resource defines “world” into roughly four categories: “the physical world, the human world, the moral world, the temporal world, and the coming world.” The only category that applies in this discussion is the “moral world” which it defines as:
The Moral World. The moral world includes people indifferent or hostile to God, the God-hostile environment generally, and in the widest sense, corruption and evil summed up under the general term “the world.”
If the people of the world can be spoken of as “the world” in a neutral sense, “the world” can also refer to the subclass of indifferent and hostile people who reject God and his ways. Before the flood nearly all the people of the world became corrupt (Gen 6:11). In Jesus’ time the world hated him (John 7:7) and will hate his followers (John 15:18-19). The world, ungodly people, cannot receive the things of God (John 14:17, 22; 16:8-9; cf. 1 John 3:1) and is not even worthy of the people of faith who live among them (Heb 11:38).
In the New Testament the world also appears as a hostile environment. Because of the hatred of the world’s people, the Son asks the Father to protect his followers rather than remove them from their alien surroundings (John 17:14-16). Paul expresses his indifference to the world by saying he “is crucified” as far as the world is concerned (Gal 6:14). Seven times in 1 Corinthians 1-3 Paul refers to the world’s ignorance of God and its powerlessness to find him without the cross of Christ.
Because of the world’s hostility to God, it is full of corruption (2 Peter 1:4) and stands as a symbol of corruption. One cannot be friendly with the evil world and love God at the same time (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17). Believers by their faith must “overcome the world” (1 John 5:4-5), killing whatever belongs to their “earthly nature” (Col 3:5) and denying “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12).
If this definition is considered comprehensive than the Bible (especially the New Testament) is particularly negative when it discusses the world. If Niebuhr wants to define “culture” in this way, then anyone holding to the Bible has already answered the question on how a Christian should engage the world- avoid it! However, from the fact that Niebuhr believes there are other ways of engaging the world, his attempt to use “culture” and “world” as synonymns fails. Then again, considering Niebuhrs respect for the Bible (or lack thereof) maybe this is exactly what he is saying.
Perhaps another source would lend other light on the subject.
In looking at Torrey’s New Topical Textbook you can also see how the world is viewed in the negative throughout the Bible. If we switch to another resource, Nave’s Topical Bible, you will come to the same conclusion.
There could be a problem with the sources here. All three of these sources come from Evangelical Christianity, which could slant the results to one perspective in particular. Evangelical Christianity is a movement against what is in their eyes (and mine, as an Evangelical) the influence of the world into Christianity. This perspective could slant their selection of verses to focus on those that tend to reject the influence of culture even though there might be some verses that allow for some influence (for instance Paul’s speech in Athens recorded in Acts 17.16-34). However, with a simple search of the New Testament for “world” will see that this is not an exaggeration.
Thus we have explored three different resources that conclude that the Bible has a poor view of the world. This means that Niebuhr cannot usefully claim that his use of “culture” is synonymous with “world.” If it is, then Niebuhr’s question of how Christians should engage the world is already clearly answered- by avoiding it at all costs.
Niebuhr’s claims for these synonyms must simply be an exaggeration, because even a cursory reading of Christ and Culture will see that culture is used much more broadly than the Bible conceives of world.
Finally, I must conclude that we are no closer to a clear understanding of what Niebuhr means by “culture”- except that it is not the same as the Bible’s understanding of “world.”