I'm continuing my posts on Dual Citizenship.

Niebuhr's Christ and Culture

This conversation has been most notable influenced by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book Christ and Culture. In it, Niebuhr describes five positions the Church can take with culture. The first two he labels the extreme positions: “Christ against Culture” and “Christ of Culture.” In these positions, the Christian has two options, the complete rejection of his surrounding culture or the complete acceptance of his culture. The other three fall in between these two opposites. “Christ above Culture” tries to synthesize the two; “Christ and Culture in Paradox” emphasizes the conflict between the two; and “Christ transforming Culture” seeks cultural renewal.[1] Niebuhr himself concedes that all are sometimes appropriate, none of them basically correct, and it is impossible to find one correct answer. However, while Niebuhr is not without his critics, these five paradigms have been the predominate language used over the last fifty-six years since its publication.

Most recently, Paul Metzger, professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and presenter at Ex Auditu, used Niebuhr’s typology to describe the church as “a cultural community that is shaped by the surrounding culture and prophetically confronts that culture for the latter’s own ultimate transformation.”[2] He states that he is not using Niebuhr in a “slavish manner,” but that “each type serves a useful purpose, and has a role to play as part of the church’s overarching framework for engaging other cultures.”[3] He goes on to say:

Positively framed, Jesus exemplifies each of the five types: Jesus is of culture as its protagonist, against culture as its antagonist, God’s “yes” and “no” to culture as the divine and human dualist, above culture as the great synthesist, and the one who ultimately transforms culture as the ultimate transformationalist. [4]

Metzger claims that his is no simplistic form of engagement and throughout his paper exemplifies his claims through the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer and by what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. In the end he calls the Church to be a Christ-centered, cruciform and ecclesially framed.[5] But in the continual use of Niebuhr’s typologies, which Niebuhr himself concedes are sometimes all appropriate, none of them basically correct, impossible to find one correct answer, Metzger leaves us no further enlightened than Niebuhr.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).

[2] Paul Metzger, “Christ, Culture and the Sermon on the Mount Community,” Ex Auditu 23 (2007): 2. Note: the page number in this and in De Neui refer to their printed page numbers.

[3] Metzger, 2.

[4] Metzger, 2-3.

[5] Metzger, 28.