No work exerts more influence upon the way that contemporary Christians discuss culture than H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr’s categories have become standard for professing Christians from liberalism on the Left to fundamentalism on the Right. One might well disagree with Niebuhr’s typology, but no reputable discussion of Christianity and culture can ignore it.
Niebuhr himself developed his classifications over several decades. He intended the book to provide a typology that describes logical possibilities rather than a taxonomy that classifies observable phenomena. He found the notion of a typology (or “ideal types”) in sociologist Max Weber, from whom he also borrowed his original two classifications. Weber had posited that Christianity could be classified socially as either church or sect. This distinction had been repeated by Ernst Troeltsch, who had added a third type (mysticism). Niebuhr dropped Troeltsch’s third type and renamed Weber’s original two categories. What Weber and Troeltsch had called a church, Niebuhr called a denomination. What they had called a sect, he called a church.
This distinction was important for Niebuhr in an early work, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. As Niebuhr used the term, a church is relatively small, personal, inward looking, perfectionistic, and generally drawn from the lower social classes. In contrast, a denomination is part of the accepted social order and appeals to the intellectual and ruling classes. Denominations tend to work downwards through the social order while churches criticize the social order from outside. Importantly, Niebuhr observed that affluence and influence tend to transform churches into denominations. This observation suggested that church and denomination represented the two poles of a spectrum of possible positions in the relationship between Christianity and culture.
Niebuhr expanded this distinction in The Kingdom of God in America. Dealing specifically with American Christianity, he identified revivalism with church and liberalism and its social gospel with denomination. He noticed, however, that the Puritans fit neither of these categories neatly. Their approach to culture suggested the possibility of intervening steps between denomination and church.
In Christ and Culture Niebuhr attempted to work out the intervening positions. As in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, he was still dealing with ideal types. Each type represented a different sort of logical relationship between Christianity and culture. Niebuhr believed that he could describe five such types: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.
Christ against culture corresponded to the phenomenon that Niebuhr had called a church in his earlier work. This type “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (p. 45 in the standard edition). In other words, it represents cultural separatism. Historical examples of this type included Tertullian, the Mennonites, and Leo Tolstoy. Niebuhr believed that this type did provide a necessary emphasis but, in the end, was inadequate. In particular, he noted that no one really escapes culture, for even radicals make constant use of it.
The Christ of culture represented the opposite extreme and corresponded to Niebuhr’s notion of a denomination. In contrast to the separatism of the first type, this one is explicitly accommodationist. Those who represent this type “understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (p. 83). This type was represented by Gnosticism, Abelard, and the “Culture-Protestantism” of Albrecht Ritschl. Niebuhr saw this approach as valuable because it motivated people to preserve what is best in culture. Yet it also ran the horrible risk of turning Christians into mere chameleons for whom Christianity meant simply whatever was best in culture.
As a mediating position, Niebuhr explored the possibility of Christ above culture. Neither separatist nor accommodationist, this position represents an appeal to synthesis. In this synthesis, however, Christ and culture are not equal partners. The synthesist recognizes a primary loyalty to Christ and places Christ superior to culture. Examples of the synthesist position have included Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, and (perhaps) Roger Williams. While Niebuhr found this type attractive, he was concerned that it would ultimately lead to an absolutizing of the relative, a reduction of the infinite to the finite, and a materializing of the dynamic (p. 145).
Between the synthesist and accommodationist positions, Niebuhr saw a fourth type: Christ and culture in paradox, a type that could be called dualist. The dualist knows that culture is corrupt and under the judgment of God. Nevertheless, escape from culture is impossible—indeed, God Himself ordains the Christian to function within culture. Consequently, the dualist necessarily participates in culture, even though such participation implicates Christians in some measure of evil. As Niebuhr saw it, this was the Lutheran attitude toward culture. He thought that the dualist type gained strength from forcing Christians to deal with the realities of God, grace, and sin. Yet he feared that it could degenerate into antinomianism and cultural conservatism.
While Niebuhr saw value in each of the above types, he also saw weaknesses. He felt that he needed a position that would recognize the corruption of culture, yet also see its potential as an aspect of creation. His fifth alternative was Christ the transformer of culture, or conversionism. The conversionist is most concerned with the renewal of culture through its encounter with Christ. Examples of Christ transforming culture could be found in Calvin and the Puritans.
Here, Niebuhr was building upon themes that he had already explored elsewhere. He envisioned Christianity as permanent metanoia (The Meaning of Revelation). The Christian was always being converted, and consequently the process of ongoing metanoia had power to transform every area of human experience.
For Niebuhr, the conversionist position was capable of subsuming the other four types. Each was right in what it affirmed, though it might be wrong in what it denied. Each could be taken as an option or strategy to be employed in the transformation of culture.
Perhaps this was why Niebuhr offered no specific criticism of the conversionist type. Any possible criticism had already been exhausted on the previous four types. Rather than representing a separate type, Christ transforming culture could be seen as an umbrella to cover all the strengths while shedding all the weaknesses of the other types.
At any rate, H. Richard Niebuhr’s ideal types have come to frame the terms of the discussion. Today, one cannot converse about the relationship between Christianity and culture without resorting to his categories. Consequently, mastery of Niebuhr’s discussion could be considered a prerequisite for entrance into that conversation today.
Psalm 18. Part 1
Victory and triumph over temporal enemies.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
We love Thee, Lord, and we adore;
Now is Thine arm revealed:
Thou art our strength, our heav’nly tower,
Our bulwark and our shield.
We fly to our eternal rock,
And find a sure defense;
His holy name our lips invoke,
And draw salvation thence.
When God, our leader, shines in arms,
What mortal heart can bear
The thunder of His loud alarms,
The lightning of His spear?
He rides upon the wingèd wind,
And angels in array
In millions wait to know His mind,
And swift as flames obey.
He speaks, and at His fierce rebuke
Whole armies are dismayed;
His voice, His frown, His angry look,
Strikes all their courage dead.
He forms our generals for the field,
With all their dreadful skill;
Gives them His awful sword to wield,
And makes their hearts of steel.
He arms our captains to the fight,
Though there His name’s forgot;
He girded Cyrus with His might,
But Cyrus knew Him not.
Oft has the Lord whole nations blessed
For His own church’s sake;
The powers that give His people rest,
Shall of His care partake.