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An Interactive Response to
    H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

    by Jules Grisham

The question of what should be the relationship of Christ, his Church, and individual Christians to "culture" has spawned a number of proposed solutions through the course and history of the Church. Niebuhr’s book explores five main categories into which these solutions may be grouped – “Christ against culture” (or “radical Christianity,” e.g., monasticism, fundamentalism); “Christ of culture” (or “culture-Christianity,” e.g., liberalism); “Christ and culture” (or “synthetic Christianity,” e.g., Thomism); “Christ and culture in paradox” (or “dualist Christianity,” e.g., Lutheranism); and “Christ transforming culture” (or “conversionist Christianity,” e.g., Augustinianism, Calvinism).

As this is an informal response paper, I would note that the book was a pleasure to read. Niebuhr’s thought progresses with great clarity, a depth of reasoning, and memorable, even poetic, language. His opening discussion was very interesting, as he sought to state the issue – specifically, that Christ, his message, and his Church, have always existed in some degree of tension with the societies into which they are introduced. Simply put, Christianity threatens culture, as a result in part, no doubt, of its “baffling attitude, [mating] what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all of men’s works, because it is not despairing but confident.” [1] Accused by some as advocating “quietism,” Christ and his church are accused by others of being intolerant. Referring to this last, Niebuhr explains, in a stunning phrase, that this is only “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” [2]

But who is this Christ? And what specifically is culture? With regard to the first, Niebuhr discusses the usual notions put forward to capture the Lord’s essence: he is the exemplar and embodiment of love, the man of hope, the radically obedient one, the exemplar and bestower of faith, the great man of great humility. All of these are valid, he notes, but not in themselves, and he concludes that “each is intelligible in its apparent radicalism only as a relation to God.” He continues:

It seems evident that the strangeness, the heroic stature, the extremism and sublimity of this person, considered morally, is due to that unique devotion to God and to that single-hearted trust in him which can be symbolized by no other figure of speech so well as by the one which calls him Son of God. [3]

With regard to the second term, Niebuhr defines “culture” as the “artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” [4] It is what the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of “the world.” And to this basic definition he adds that culture as such is always social, always a human achievement. The world of culture is, he says, a world of values. “Culture is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values,” and “cultural activity is almost as much concerned with the conservation of values as with their realization.” [5] These definitions – especially that of culture – are exceedingly useful to bear in mind as we enter the debate about Christ, Christians, and culture. And, even in this postmodern environment in which we supposedly all know this by now, it is necessary to remind ourselves again that there is no culture-neutral vantage point from which to examine these issues. As with nature, so with culture: we are “stuck” in it as it were.

As Niebuhr then progressed through the five views, giving expression to the historical basis and showing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each one in turn, I found myself agreeing with the essential thread of his thought. The first he discusses is that of “Christ against culture,” whose advocates Niebuhr labels “radicals,” on account of their radical stance vis a vis the refusal to find grounds for hope in culture. It seems clear that this view, while not wrong, is yet not complete in itself. It misses a great deal which the Scripture has to say about the relationship of God to the greater culture(s) in which Christians find themselves and strive to re-present in culturally-meaningful words and categories the gospel message by which men and women are saved. As for what exactly I mean here, stay tuned!

But first, in his later discussion of the “dualists” (i.e., the advocates and adherents of Christ and culture in paradox), Niebuhr points out one fundamental difference between the “dualists” and the “radicals” (i.e., adherents and advocates of Christ against culture): whereas the “dualists” posit the fundamental divide as being between a holy God and the sinful mass of humanity (a view which I hold as being essential to the pure gospel), the “radicals” seem more often to view the great divide as being between a sanctified remnant and the rest of humanity.

But note that this second view is not wrong! There is a fundamental difference between those who are in Christ, partaking in the blessings of his visible Church, and those who are not. Yet it is not the fundamental difference. Insofar as “radicals” tend toward the self-perception of being part of a pure community, evidenced by some notion of a relative absence among “us” of the sins which beset the massa perdita, I find the “Christ against culture” view fatally poisoned by (at best incipient) self-righteousness.

Rather, our righteousness is Christ’s and his alone – not just at the “the hour we first believed” but thereafter also. We are a community set apart, in Christ, and we are pure because of him only, not on account of any subsequent purity on our part. Surely we were not justified by faith alone only to become self-justifying thereafter. And the truth of this assertion is abundantly evident in the life of every Christian existing and interacting in every Christian community: sin persists, within and among us; Christ is what sets us apart, and he only.

Now, I must hasten to add that I am not denying the reality and necessity of sanctification. It’s only that there will ever remain an immense “holiness gap” between even the most sanctified Christian and his glorified state. Therefore, as every Christian remains a sinner, able to stand before God only on account of the righteousness imputed him by grace, through faith in Christ, then clearly, a position which presses for Christ against culture as the only paradigm is limited.

The opposite tendency which Niebuhr discussed was Christ in culture (whose adherents and advocates he describes as “cultural Christian”). I won’t discuss this viewpoint here because, both before and after reading about this position, I find it hard to square with the pattern of Scripture.

We come then to the three less extreme views, with each of which I found myself in substantial agreement. With regard to the radical nature of sin, for example, Niebuhr writes:

We have noted that radical Christians are tempted to exclude their holy commonwealths from the dominion of sin, and that cultural Christians tend to deny that it reaches into the depths of the human personality. The Christians of the center are convinced that men cannot find in themselves, as persons or as communities, a holiness which can be possessed. [6]

He examines first the “synthesis view” of Christ and culture, which he says is characterized by a “both/and” relation. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the outstanding advocate of this view, which might also be called “Christ above culture.” We see in his very person a picture of the Church as being at once against culture (he was a monk who rejected the secular world) and engaged in that culture (he was a friar, serving the Church had become the guardian of the culture).

The essence of the synthesists’ view is its two-fold approach to ethics, by which there exist simultaneously an ethics of the natural order, guided by reason and whose end is the blessings of ordered life and society, and an ethics of the gospel, guided by revelation, whose end is eternal life and the incomparable blessings of God’s presence. The two tracks are summed up by Niebuhr, who writes of it that “what man can gain in his culture and by culture of God’s original gifts in creation is only an imperfect happiness. Beyond that lies another end in eternity, for which all striving is inadequate preparation.” [7] There is, therefore, a double happiness available for mankind, one in his engagement with culture and one in his life in and for Christ. God is sovereign in both domains, continually assisting and directing by his grace. In a beautiful passage, Niebuhr explains how the synthesis view is

like that of the servants to whom Jesus compared his disciples. They can never fulfill their duties, working in the fields, waiting on the tables, keeping the house in order. Yet these unworthy servants have an invitation to a royal feast at the end of the day, and so carry on a double preparation; all their menial labor is transformed for them by the inner glow of expectancy – not of their pay envelope but of an unpurchasable and unmeritable joy. There is always the more and the other; there is always “all this and heaven too.” [8]

I think that this focus on hope, this eschatological orientation, is the most powerful aspect of the synthesis view. Here we have the apostolic, holy, and catholic Church which strives to purity, separating itself from the profane mass and functioning to reflect the glorious condition to come, yet drawn as from the future into the present, coexisting with and really serving the greater community and culture, pulling it “up” as to a greater actualization than it would otherwise have thought possible, both ends guided by and sustained by grace.

Protestants of course have a problem with this, to the extent that it seems to suggest a church within a church – in which certain “radical” precincts are set off from the rest of the body. And the other problem is its tendency to overstate its case with regard to culture. That is to say, the entire system can be corrupted by an absolutization of the perceived natural order, such that a particular social organization becomes confused with the eternally prescribed order while the eternal vision becomes fatally bound up with the culture-bound one.

As Niebuhr points out, “provincial and historical truths may be true in the sense of corresponding to reality, but are nevertheless fragmentary, and become untrue when overemphasized… A synthesist who makes the evanescent in any sense fundamental to his theory of the Christian life will be required to turn to the defense of that temporal foundation for the sake of the superstructure it carries when changes in the culture threaten it.” [9] The tendency of the synthesist , in other words, despite his claims of universality in reason and nature, is to fall back upon culture-Christianity.

When Niebuhr’s discussion turned to the “dualists,” I felt on more familiar ground. It is in this view that we are confronted by the radical vision of Scripture, by which man’s condition of sinfulness is set directly against God’s demand for holiness, and which is only resolved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ at the cross, through whom alone we receive the wholly unmerited imputation of righteousness, by faith. Again, the fundamental divide is not between Christians and pagans, but between God and man.

The dualist view, like that of the synthesists, is predicated upon grace. But grace for the latter is bound up in the sacraments. Grace is thus seen as a substance which is conveyed from God to his people through the sacramental administration of his holy Church, by which its members are sustained and transformed into conformity with Christ. For the dualist, however, grace is much less a thing, and much more an activity. It is “the action of reconciliation that reaches outs across the no-man’s land of the historic war of men against God.” [10] Man ever stands before God a sinner in need of grace.

Thus the dualist stands with the “radical” in pronouncing the condition of the culture helpless, the extent of its depravity beyond repair. Yet, against both the radicals and the synthesists, it holds firmly that the prevailing depravity inundates the church as well. It’s no use to set off as some self-perceived pure community, for the church is but a collection of sinners, daily in just as much need of Christ’s grace as everyone else, sustained by and ultimately unified by that alone. And therefore, in a seeming paradox, the Christian is thus set free in Christ, from some illusory quarantine of purity, to a sin-aware engagement in and service of society. Here is a superb quote on the issue:

Christ deals with the fundamental problems of the moral life; he cleanses the springs of action; he creates and recreates the ultimate community in which all action takes place. But by the same token he does not directly govern the external actions or construct the immediate community in which man carries on his work. On the contrary, he sets men free from the inner necessity of finding special vocations and founding special communities in which to attempt to acquire self-respect, and human and divine approval. He releases them from monasteries and the conventicles of the pious for service of their actual neighbors in the world through all the ordinary vocations of men… We may say, then, that the dualism in Luther’s solution of the Christ-and-culture problem was the dualism of the “How” and the “What” of conduct. [11]

But Niebuhr points out the besetting problems which inhere in this view. First, cultural existence and attainment is seen in almost wholly negative terms. That is, the institutions by which culture is expressed, maintained, and transmitted exist merely to prevent sin from being as pervasively destructive as it would otherwise have been. We can serve society in this capacity, but we know that as sinners we cannot truly transform it. This view gives rise to a hold-the-line, conservative view of culture, which may be quite out of line with the overall biblical emphasis.

And second, the view seems to give warrant to antinomianism. In its defense, of course, we might point out that this razor’s edge between knowing our freedom in Christ, which we have by grace, and antinomianism, which surely is the abuse of that freedom, is exactly what Paul is speaking about as he moves back and forth between the issues in Romans. Yet when Luther proclaims pecca fortiter, perhaps this has provided theological warrant over the years, for the undisciplined Christian to refuse to resist temptation. There is, finally, something “world-emptying” about the dualist view, by which the goodness of creation and the very point of life seems lost in a dazzling apprehension of grace pointed ultimately only to escape from the world, of its having no inhering positive value.

This brings us to the last view, which Niebuhr labels “conversionist.” I considered myself an advocate of Christ transforming culture before reading the book, and still do, though I must confess that here, finally, I found grounds for disagreement with the author. As he points out, what distinguishes the conversionist view from that of the dualist is the its more positive attitude and hopeful stance toward culture. This would appear to be grounded upon three theological convictions: first, the conversionist emphasizes not just God’s work in redemption but in creation (i.e., the goodness of creation, of nature, is emphasized); second, the Fall is seen as “corruption,” entirely a consequence of man’s action – then and ever since – by which evil arises as perverted, misused, wrongly opted good; and third, history is seen as the dramatic interaction between God and man, in which Christ’s inauguration of the kingdom has in a real sense brought us into (though not yet completely) the eschatological “Now.”

I accept these points, though I do so the last only with reservations. We are of course living in the “already and not yet,” and these may truly be said to be the “last days” which were inaugurated by the coming of the kingdom. The present-ness of the eschaton is made manifest every Lord’s Day (read, New Testament Day of the Lord) when eternity and the temporal intersect in our worship, and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But here are some quotes whose implications trouble me:

“The problem of culture is therefore the problem of its conversion, not of its replacement by a new creation; though the conversion is so radical that it amounts to a kind of rebirth.” [12] This is a beautifully put thought, and I agree with its parameters up to but not including its implied exclusively-here and now orientation. That is, it’s one thing to affirm the goal of conversion of culture, but another to downplay the importance of the new creation.

This has become something of a vexed issue for me as I encounter more and more Sproulian-type post-millennialists who ground all Christian theology in the creation ordinances of Genesis and proclaim that what we’ve got now is at least in the range of as good as it gets. Heaven itself seems reconceived in this view into an image of the here and now. But surely this is an inadequate reading of Scripture.

If we are speaking of the Lord’s Day worship as a here and now appropriation of that eternity, then, yes, I agree. But if we are speaking of the state of the world and its culture, I must disagree. The ultimate future is God with us in the new heavens and the new earth, and in this ultimacy the Bible practically directs us toward that future hope. This is not as good as it gets, nor is it even on a continuum of development. Rather, it is more akin to the situation of an individual: we grow daily in sanctification, yet by no means will we “ease” into glorification; there is an impossible-to-bridge-except-by-grace gap between the individual’s present condition and the condition of glory before God. We possess it, as by forensic imputation, but we do not yet own it as by nature. So, too, with culture. The future exists in a real sense, here and now, in the worship of the Church and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and we can engage culture with a view of the created goodness of things, in order to transform it by Christ. Yet we know that the coming of our Lord will, like our own glorification, be an event wholly greater than the incrementalism of ongoing cultural engagement. There is a tension, which we have identified as the “already and not yet” (note to the post-mills: not yet!). It is my conviction that the conversionist view needs to be careful to maintain the ultimacy of the hope stance – we look forward to a radically better future (a new heavens and a new earth) and we work now toward the transformation of culture, but we do not say that the present is exclusively the outline of the future.

Again: “He [the conversionist] lives somewhat less ‘between the times’ and somewhat more in the divine ‘Now’ than do his brother Christians. The eschatological future has become for him an eschatological present. Eternity means for him less the action of God before time and less the life with God after time, and more the presence of God in time. Eternal life is a quality of existence in the here and now… The conversionist with his view of history as the present encounter with God in Christ, does not live so much in expectation of a final ending of the world of creation and culture as in awareness of the power of the Lord to transform all things by lifting them up to himself.” However much I agree with the emphasis on the reality of “God with us” in the here and now, and on the reality of the kingdom in its “already” aspect, I do not in the final analysis believe that this view reflects the total emphasis of the Bible.

Or of that of Augustine, while we’re at it. Indeed, Niebuhr seems vexed that Augustine, having seemed to promise a Now-orientation through his conversionist outlook on the relationship of Christ to culture, then pulls back from its implications. Here is yet another quote which is worth citing:

What is offered instead [of a thoroughgoing conversionism] is the eschatological vision of a spiritual society, consisting of some elect human individuals together with angels, living in eternal parallelism with the company of the damned. The elect are not the remnant from which a new humanity arises; they are a saved but not saving remnant. Why the theologian whose fundamental convictions laid the groundwork for a thoroughly conversionist view of humanity’s nature and culture did not draw the consequences of these convictions is a difficult question. [13]

No, it is not difficult. It is biblical. So too with Calvin and Calvinism, to which Niebuhr revealingly refers as “separatist and repressive.” Obviously, Niebuhr believes that conversionism is incompatible with eternal election. But the latter is what the Bible teaches. It cannot be rejected because it seems to conflict with our preferred theory of cultural engagement.

There is a tension in this: What is the relationship between the goal of transforming culture and the radical transformation which will accompany Christ’s second coming? I don’t know, but I think we gave a hint earlier when we suggested a connection between this socio-cultural activity and that of the individual in sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which God powers the transformation of individuals, yet glorification is a blessing which wholly breaches the continuum. So too, perhaps, with culture. Transformation is the process by which Christians “gospelize” society, bringing it more into conformity with God’s will, and thus making present the kingdom of God on earth where his will is done by willing hearts; but the coming of the Kingdom in fullness will breach any continuum of development.

In the final analysis, I must admit that Niebuhr didn’t change my view on the question of Christ and culture. He did, however, greatly broaden it, challenging me to think through the several possibilities and to see the strengths and weaknesses of each. But for now, I’m where I began: the ground for our existential experience of God’s grace to us in Christ and for our subsequent interaction with culture is found in the dualist view; but this is wholly compatible with the bigger vision of the conversionist view, which incorporates God’s plans in creation itself; but finally, we must be on guard that the conversionist view not be allowed to usurp the future, whose appropriation by the church in worship and in enjoying the presence of the Holy Spirit points to the coming fulfillment of the new heavens and the new earth – a view which seems best elaborated by the synthesists. In short, Augustine seems to have gotten it right! And in that, I’ll continue to stand with him - a radical dualist tranformationist with an eye toward the coming glory!


1   H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951), 6.
2   Ibid., 7.
3   Ibid., 27.
4   Ibid., 32.
5   Ibid., 36-37.
6   Ibid., 118.
7   Ibid., 132.
8   Ibid., 144.
9   Ibid., 145.-146.
10   Ibid., 151.
11   Ibid., 174-75.
12   Ibid., 194.
13   Ibid., 216.

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© Faith Presbyterian Church 2009 • Jules Grisham, Pastor
Church Phone: (267) 392-5282 • E-mail: Jgrisham@faithprez.org