A Theology for Hipsters: A Theology of Culture (Part 4)

Christ and Culture

Questions about how Christians should relate to the culture around them have been around as long as the church has, so this is not arbitrary issue. It is a question that seeks an answer to the very equation that Jesus gives us in John 17, often paraphrased and summarized in the expression “in the world but not of it.” Christians are to be in the world, but we are also to be distinct from it. But how does this happen, what does it look like? Christians throughout history have answered that question in different ways.

In the early church Justin Martyr contended for the usefulness of secular philosophy in making a systematic defense of the Christian faith (in the world).  Meanwhile, Tertullian rhetorically asked, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens,” by which he meant to separate Christianity and secular philosophy (not of the world). Augustine wrote of our dual citizenship as members of this world (in), but distinctly members of the Kingdom of God (not of). And on down through the ages the question has been answered and wrestled with. In the modern era the most influential thinker on this subject has been H. Richard Niebuhr, the post-liberal theologian of Yale Divinity. His 1951 book Christ and Culture developed the standard formulas for understanding this relationship in the contemporary church.

Niebuhr’s approach to Christians and the culture has stood for several decades as the definitive model; it has become somewhat canonical for modern Evangelicals. Niebuhr outlined five ways that he believed Christians have historically interacted with the culture: (1) Christ Against Culture; (2) Christ of Culture; (3) Christ Above Culture; (4) Christ and Culture in Paradox; and (5) Christ Transforming Culture.[1] A look at each will help us make proper evaluation.

Christ Against Culture

The first model that Niebuhr saw was that of Christ Against Culture. It was the common paradigm during the Early Church; an age when being a Christian at best meant persecution and at worst martyrdom.  There was a mutual dislike between the Pagan, Jewish, and Christian cultures, and it often seemed as though spiritual differences were being spelled out in physical violence. The response of the Early Church was to distance themselves from the world in such a way that they now began to refer to themselves as a “Third Race.” There were Jews, there were Gentiles, and then there were Christians. Frame summarizes:

The Christians worshipped a different God, lived by a different law, had a different inward character. The world was simply wicked. Tertullian (approx. 160-220 A.D) argued that Christians could not participate in the military, in politics, in trade, with the world. After we become Christians, Tertullian said, we have no need of Greek philosophy.[2]

There was now a distinct form of separation from the culture, one that saw the culture as equivalent with worldliness. This may represent, to some extent, the extreme interpretation of the “Diminished Fundamentalism” of our own age.

Of course to be fair, the situation in which the Early Church found itself was equally unique. They bore the blame for every disaster that happened in Rome and became constant targets of mobs, Roman-ordered death sentences, and personal hate crimes. One can hardly blame them for attempting isolation from the world and fearing the culture. Even buying their groceries from the marketplace was an ordeal where they could be thrown in prison or stoned to death at the drop of a coin.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it does associate culture with worldliness. The world is full of corruption and sin, but there is still God’s common grace ruling over all. Not all things in culture are bad. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9 that he became all things to all people in order that he might win some. The idea here is that Paul accommodated his practice in order to fit in with certain cultures, depending on where he was. Paul also reminds the Corinthians that food sacrificed to an idol is not sinful, and is okay to eat. There were numerous ways in which even post-conversion the disciples could be in the world, and not of it. Frame points out clearly the difference between world and culture when he writes:

Culture is a broader term than world. World is the bad part of culture. It is the culture of unbelief, taken in its essence, without the effects of common grace and special grace.

We would do well to remember this distinction; it will save us much heartache in the future and open up new avenues for ministry and engagement. This is clearly not the model that I endorse and believe it to be too closely associated with pulling Christians out of the world, which is, after all, exactly what Jesus prayed against in John 17 (“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one”).[3]


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

[2] John Frame, “Christ and Culture.” Online at www.monergism.com

[3] D.A. Carson has wisely noted that of course this is a viable relational option for the church in other parts of the world suffering under state sponsored or ignored persecution. But, he adds, that it is to be utilized as part of a larger theology of culture, not as the only option. Of course, he also realizes most Christians in those contexts do not have the luxuries we have to contemplate these issues and their vastly difficulty complexities and nuances.

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