Series - Culture

Evaluating Niebuhr

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

H. Richard Niebuhr has provided the paradigm for discussions of Christianity and culture. In his seminal volume, Christ and Culture, he articulated five “ideal types” that are now widely employed in this conversation: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.

Critiquing these categories has become a cottage industry in the theological village. It seems that one way of gaining one’s theological spurs is to offer a new evaluation of Niebuhr. Naturally, the explanations and criticisms have varied in their usefulness.

One of the most frequently heard is that Niebuhr’s categories do not fit real-life individuals, and that several of Niebuhr’s examples seem strained. This criticism would be more telling if Niebuhr had meant to provide a taxonomy rather than a typology. Since ideal types are supposed to represent logical possibilities, however, it is not surprising that few “pure” examples of any type can be found.

A more responsible criticism is that Niebuhr’s typology is incomplete. One recent evaluation of Niebuhr’s work, a volume by Craig Carter (Rethinking Christ and Culture, Brazos, 2007), offers a sustained argument to this effect. Carter suggests that Niebuhr’s discussion assumes “Christendom,” i.e., a cultural situation that has been created by the sustained political and social enforcement of Christian domination. Since Christendom is now disintegrating, Carter presents a series of alternative types for Christians to employ in the future. Unfortunately, Carter’s discussion is skewed by his Anabaptist assumption that non-violence and non-involvement in the state are requirements for Christians.

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Niebuhr's Typology

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

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.

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Christians and High Culture, Again

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

As Matthew Arnold envisioned it, high culture is the effort to “know the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Culture and Anarchy). It consists of those products of civilization that are deliberately meant to preserve, shape, and propagate human ideals and mores. It is encountered in libraries, academies, museums, and concert halls. It includes philosophy (broadly defined), the humanities, belles-lettres, music, the visual arts, and the performing arts. High culture can be contrasted with traditional or folk cultures as well as with popular or mass culture.

Each major civilization has produced its own high culture. Typically, high cultures have centered upon worship—not surprisingly, since every culture is the incarnation of a religion. From this center, however, each culture has gone on to examine the enduring aspects of human life: birth and death, comedy and tragedy, love and marriage and childbearing, hearth, home, valor and friendship, among others. They also explore answers to the perennial questions such as the nature of existence, truth, freedom, justice, duty, goodness, and beauty.

Christian leaders have been ambivalent in their opinion of high culture. Saul of Tarsus imbibed deeply from the high cultures of his day, but after his conversion he refused to rely upon cultural sophistication as a strategy for advancing the gospel. Even then, however, he clearly employed his cultural skills in the composition of his epistles. Tertullian, rejecting philosophy as only a trained rhetor could, asked “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Others, such as Clement of Alexandria, followed by his pupil Origen, virtually subordinated Christian doctrine to the major philosophies of their day.

This ambivalence has a reason. On the one hand, the content of the various high cultures has often militated against Christian perspectives. On the other hand, the articulation of Christian perspectives seems to require mastery of the very disciplines that are perpetuated within high culture. The utterly unlettered or completely bumptious have only rarely made much of a contribution to Christian thought or sensibility.

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Christians and High Culture

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

J. Gresham Machen’s essay on “Christianity and Culture” forces its Christian readers to evaluate their relationship to high culture. While Machen surely did not expect every Christian to become a poet, composer, philosopher, or statesman, he did expect Christians to adopt a generally positive attitude toward such activities. He was particularly concerned with the Christian attitude toward scholarship. He argued that Christians should neither subordinate Christianity to culture (liberalism), nor simply ignore or reject culture in favor of Christianity (obscurantism). Rather, he suggested that Christians should engage in the work of consecrating culture to the service of God.

Not surprisingly, Machen’s approach has been rejected by those branches of Christianity that have been most influenced by populism. At best, such Christians see high culture as a distraction. They may even perceive it as an outright threat to the life of faith. Fascination with high culture is thought to exhaust time and effort on education and the arts that might better be spent in winning souls. High culture is presumed to produce arrogance in those who fall under its spell. Worst of all, high culture introduces Christians to corrosive ideas that have the potential to deceive. According to this theory, Christians might better leave such things alone and choose a plain life of humble service to God.

Admittedly, high culture—and especially academic culture—can provide an occasion for arrogance. People who invest years of their lives perfecting their mastery of an art or a learned discipline tend to become a bit testy when critiqued by dilettantes. Furthermore, they sometimes assume that their study grants them authority outside their areas of expertise. Even within those areas their competence may actually be less than they imagine.

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Machen’s "Christianity and Culture"

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False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

—J. Gresham Machen in “Christianity and Culture”

Contemporary discussions of Christianity and culture almost always begin with an analysis of the “ideal types” that H. Richard Niebuhr developed in Christ and Culture. So prominent have Niebuhr’s categories become that one might overlook the fact that Christians were writing and thinking about culture for a very long time before Niebuhr came along. One writer who contributed to this discussion was J. Gresham Machen.

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Christianized Culture in the Middle Ages

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Whether cultural Christianization is possible is a question that provokes considerable debate. The answer to that question will, of course, depend upon what one means by Christianization. If the term means that most people within the culture are regenerated, or even that the gospel is rightly and generally understood, then no culture has ever been Christianized. If, however, Christianization simply means that a generally Christian worldview and morality has become the dominant perspective of a culture, then Christianization is not only possible, but actual. In fact, Western civilization experienced a predominantly Christianized culture for something like a thousand years.

Three objections can be raised against this thesis. The first is that the civilization of medieval Europe was Roman Catholic and, therefore, from a biblical perspective, not truly Christian at all. The second objection is that the morality of the Middle Ages was mixed, and that certain forms of immorality were even celebrated. The third objection is that the thought of medieval Europe was so influenced by pagan philosophers that the Christian elements were greatly diluted.

To take the last objection first, the non-Christian philosopher who exercised the greatest influence on medieval theology was Aristotle. His thought was mediated chiefly through the theology of Thomas Aquinas, who wrote some 800 years after the beginning of the Middle Ages. Even then, Thomas did not appropriate Aristotle uncritically, and others (Bonaventure, for example) sharply opposed the use of Aristotelian categories. To be sure, Aristotle did exert an influence, especially during the late medieval period. People who study medieval philosophy, theology, or culture, however, rarely claim that the most influential categories in the medieval West came from pagan philosophers.

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Influences that Shape Cultures

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Except for the hypothetical castaway on a South Seas island, everybody lives in a culture. The creation of culture is hardwired into human beings. They encounter the natural world. They encounter other people. They bring their most fundamental convictions about the nature of reality to bear upon these encounters. The result is a culture, and the qualities of that culture will differ somehow from those of every other culture.

This description of culture is presumptuously brief. From a Christian point of view, it is also theologically deficient. Not false, to be sure—every word of it rings true to Scripture. Nevertheless, more needs to be said.

One of the mistakes that some theologians (and non-theologians, too) make is to try to judge culture in general rather than to evaluate specific cultures. One analyst may suggest that culture shows evidence of divine creativeness, and therefore it is good. Another may argue that it displays the marks of human depravity, and it is therefore bad. Both fail to recognize that every culture is a complex phenomenon that will be powerfully shaped by a number of influences. Some of these influences can be classified under five theological categories.

The first of these theological categories is meticulous Providence. Christians believe that Providence is active in all human affairs, so it should come as no surprise that Providence is reckoned as an influence upon cultures. The problem is that Providence, by definition, works behind the scenes. Looking backwards, Christians simply recognize that Providence ordained whatever actually happened.

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What Is a Culture?


Since multiplied volumes have been written in the attempt to define culture, offering a description in a single short essay is certainly presumptuous. This apparent presumption is exacerbated by the fact that social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists) and humanists approach the topic quite differently. For a Christian and theologian, this presumptuousness is further underlined by the fact that the Scriptures themselves offer no deliberate or explicit discussion of the subject.

Nevertheless, some of the most heated conversations in contemporary Christendom concern the relationship between Christianity and culture. Those conversations affect virtually every area of church life. The problem is simply too important to dismiss.

Without at least a preliminary description of “culture,” this entire conversation becomes nonsensical. Without a mechanism to distinguish culture from non-culture, the discussion can broaden to include almost anything. Some attempt at limiting the field of enquiry is obligatory for those who wish to pursue this debate.

From a Christian perspective, certain distinctions seem especially important for a correct description of culture. Without these distinctions, discussions of Christianity and culture quickly become confused. These distinctions are two in number.

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