Christians and Mythology (Part 3: Benefits)


Mythology is everywhere (see Part 1), and there are biblical reasons that Christians should not necessarily break out in hives when they encounter mythology (see Part 2). The good news is that there can be much more to the Christianity-mythology relationship than narrow-eyed tolerance. There are numerous practical benefits to having a good understanding of mythology.

1. Meeting historical/cultural expectations

Knowing where we came from is just part of being an educated person. As one pastor has pointed out, we expect grade school students in Maryland to learn Maryland history—so as heirs of Hellenic and Latin civilizations, we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat knowledgeable about Greco-Roman culture.1 It’s simply our history.

We also have a Judeo-Christian history, but let us learn both instead of gravitating towards one over the other. Neither let us pretend that Christian history is pristine compared to the stories of polluted pagan mythology. Biblical history is nothing more than stories of God’s salvation of pagans.

One could argue that we are to be counter-cultural, and that is true in a certain sense. But being counter-cultural does not mean that we have to counter everything.2 At times, Paul argues from both creational and cultural norms.3 Creational norms are fixed, but there are also acceptable cultural reasons for acclimating ourselves to our surroundings. We may not like some aspects of our culture, but we should be educated in the culture that we find ourselves in.

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Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 20

LookItUpRepublished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.

Thesis 86

Despite the tendency of some dispensationalist scholars to interpret the Kingdom Parables negatively, so that they view the movement from hundredfold to sixty to thirty in Matt 13:8 as marking “the course of the age,” and in Matt 13:31-33 “the mustard seed refers to the perversion of God’s purpose in this age, while the leaven refers to the corruption of the divine agency” (J. D. Pentecost), Christ presents these parables as signifying “the kingdom of heaven” which He came to establish and which in other parables he presents as a treasure.


It has to said that the composers of these 95 Theses have not proven themselves shining examples in rightly representing the opinions of dispensationalists. A quick perusal of several authors (e.g. Pentecost, Things To Come and the commentaries on Matthew by Toussaint and by Glasscock) revealed they believed nothing of the sort about Matthew 13:8, unless, of course, it is the standard view that the four soils represent four kinds of receptors (hearts) and their attitudes to the Word. Those whose hearts receive the Word grow in understanding (Toussaint). Is this objectionable?

On the “Mustard Seed,” Ed Glasscock wisely states, “Trying to identify the birds is useless speculation, and to build doctrine from such obscure analogy is dangerous” (292). He may well be right. Pentecost’s negative view is based upon the way the Lord used “birds” in the previous parable (13:4, 19) so it cannot be brushed aside simply because it is “negative.” Perhaps Pentecost’s interpretation is wrong? Some dispensationalists disagree with it (e.g. Toussaint and Glasscock). Christian interpreters get it wrong sometimes. What one must ask is whether they provide any decent textual and theological arguments for their view. At any rate, one would not expect to be at the pointed end of a “thesis” just because certain brethren didn’t like your “negative” explanation.

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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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