Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
by Angus J. L. Menuge
from Christ and Culture in Dialogue
Introduction Conflict between the demands of Christ and culture is neither new nor rare. From the early Christian martyrs of Rome to the Confessing Church1 of Nazi Germany, Christians have paid the price for rejecting the State's pretensions to supreme authority.2 Christians indeed have often been viewed as subversive of culture precisely because of their belief in a transcultural human destiny. As C. S. Lewis put it,
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. 3
Contemporary America exhibits a variant of
the tension as aspect of its so-called "culture wars." Stephen L. Carter
recounts the example of a Colorado public school teacher who "was ordered by
his superiors, on pain of disciplinary action, to remove his personal Bible
from his desk where students might see it."4
Such cases are typical of a disturbing general trend toward what Richard John Neuhaus memorably called "the naked public square,"5 in which public institutions are divested of all associations with religions currently out of favor. Carter's diagnosis is that the religious views of the vast majority of Americans are being marginalized, reduced to impotent personal foibles, "like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial - and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults."6
The Christian's proper response to culture is thus not only a historical, but an urgent present question. Almost half a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture laid down a useful framework of five typical answers to the question. Despite the work's deservedly great influence, critical scholarship continues to reveal flaws, both in Niebuhr's general methodology and in his treatment of specific options. In particular, Niebuhr partly endorses the frequent charges against the "paradox" answer of classical Lutheranism that it encourages antinomianism and cultural conservatism, while significant advantages of the approach are overlooked. It has to be admitted, however, that part of the blame for the continued prevalence of such misunderstandings rests with Lutherans themselves: they have not been sufficiently visible and clear in their elucidation of what Mark Noll has called the "Lutheran Difference."7 Perhaps too, the mere fact that the Lutheran view is subtle and nuanced has prevented it from gaining a foothold in a public imagination which gravitates toward simpler answers.
The present chapter aims to evaluate the adequacy of Niebuhr' s overall strategy and to provide a more compelling general picture of the Lutheran stance. I will begin with an explication of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, followed by an examination of Niebuhr's methodology and presentation. A two-fold defense of what Robert Benne has called the "paradoxical vision"8 of Lutheranism will then be offered: a negative defense against Niebuhr's objections and a positive defense emphasizing distinct advantages.
I. Niebuhr's Framework
At least officially,9 Niebuhr's approach to the problem of Christ and culture is one of methodological pluralism. That is, he thinks there is a range of typical answers to the question, but he does not claim they are exhaustive, or that they are mutually exclusive.10 Rather, each of the answers is sometimes necessary, but also incomplete, and the final truth of the matter will elude human formulation, residing only, beyond our reach, in the providential interaction of all of the views:
Christ as living Lord is answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.11
Niebuhr claims it would be a "usurpation of
the Lordship of Christ"12 to think that one
had found the one true answer, yet at the same time argues that each individual
Christian has the duty of finding his or her own answers when making specific
When considering a relationship, all hinges on how we define the relata, so before giving his typical answers, Niebuhr provides working definitions of "Christ" and "culture." He hopes to avoid definitions which will prejudge the issue in favor of just one of the answers. Niebuhr claims that the essential character of Christ is given by His radical theocentrism, the fact that His love, hope and humility are all primarily directed to God the Father in heaven:
As Son of God He points away from the many values of man's social life to the One who alone is good.14
Yet at the same time, Christ is mediator between God the Father and man:
Because he loves the Father with the perfection of human eros, therefore be loves men with the perfection of divine agape, since God is agape.15
This duality in Christ grounds a
corresponding duality in Christian response. Lutherans express this by saying
that our faith has both a vertical dimension (directed toward God) and a
horizontal dimension (directed toward neighbor).16 Thus, any adequate account of the question
of Christ and culture needs to emphasize both the fact that Christ thaws us
beyond this world so that, in the biblical sense, He hates the world (and
requires us to do likewise), and the fact that He loves us and enjoins us to
love others here and now in the world.
Niebuhr realizes the importance of defining "culture" in a way which has universal applicability: nothing should enter the definition that restricts it to a particular range of times or places. So his definition is very abstract.
Culture is the "artificial, secondary environment" which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.17
Niebuhr suggests that culture in this sense is what the New Testament writers meant by "the world."
3. The Options
Using these definitions, Niebuhr now explores five answers which seem to have recurred through history, suggesting great representatives of each one, though he admits that none of these people fits neatly into just one of the categories.
3.1 Christ against Culture
The most radical answer is "Christ Against Culture.' On this view the Lordship of Christ does not mean that lie is the highest of many authorities, but that He is the sole authority over the Christian. It thus presents Christ and culture as a radical either-or choice: if we follow Christ we must reject any loyalty to culture. Apparently the view has t scriptural support. For example, John says:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).
In a similar vein, some would argue that
the prince of this world is the devil, and therefore that loyalty to worldly
authority is ultimately loyalty to the devil.
According to Niebuhr, historical proponents of this sort of view have included Tertullian, Tolstoy, and the Mennonites. Tolstoy went so far as to claim that
The Christian is independent of every human authority by the fact that he regards the divine law of love, implanted in the soul of every man, and brought before his consciousness by Christ, as the sole guide of his life and other men's also.18
On the basis of this radical view, 'Tolstoy consistently argued that
All state obligations are against the conscience of a Christian-the oath of allegiance, taxes, law proceedings, and military service.19
The view encourages the separation of
Christians from culture, either individually, as in Tolstoy's ease, or
collectively, as in the ease of monasticism.
Niebuhr acknowledges the integrity of those following Christ against Culture in their courageous witness and sometimes martyrdom under evil governments, and in the social reforms they have thereby provoked. Indeed, without a continual separatist impetus,
Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord.20
However he thinks that if the view is
offered as the whole answer, it is vulnerable to devastating objections.
First, the approach tends to naiveté about the nature of culture, sin, and holiness. It is impossible in practice to separate oneself from culture; as culture permeates our thinking and language, it is as much in us as it is around us.21 We may keep out some bad influences of culture but others will remain inside. If Tolstoy, or the Amish, live apart from certain state institutions, or from mainstream technology and consumerism, they succeed only in establishing countercultures, not in becoming acultural. And although the separatist may insulate himself from some of the actual sins of prevailing culture, the original sin in his nature remains. The fact that monastic orders required so many rules and forms of discipline is a convincing testimony of the continuing presence of sin in the Christian. In the face of this, the separatist tendency to acknowledge grades of holiness can be maintained only by a works righteous ethic (for Tolstoy, for example, Christ is primarily a new Lawgiver), thus eliminating the primacy of grace. It was for this reason that Luther claimed that monasticism was not merely unnecessary but, if it was chosen as a means to greater holiness, an institution of the devil.22
Secondly, separatism captures only, one of the two sides of Christ's nature initially noted, in the working definition of Christ. The view emphasizes Christ's role in drawing us away from culture (the vertical dimension), but ignores his role in governing our continued relations with culture (the horizontal dimension). If Tolstoy were right, a Christian should pay no taxes, yet Christ himself says we must do it. Christ wants us to love our neighbors, but our neighbors are found in mainstream culture (and not merely in cloisters) and practical works of love will translate agape into culturally specific actions.23 (In an undeveloped region, raising water from a well might be such an act, yet it would be inappropriate in urban America.) In fact, Christ rebukes a kind of separatism in the Parable of the Good Samaritan: the priest and the Levite keep themselves holy, separate and apart from the robbery victim, but the Samaritan, who has to cross cultural boundaries to help the man, is held up as our moral guide (Luke 10:25-3 7).
Yet the most devastating objection of all, Niebuhr thinks, comes from classic orthodox theology.24 In order for culture to be radically rejected in favor of Christ, logic requires that Christ Himself is not a part of culture. This leads, however, to a purely spiritual understanding of Christ which denies His role in creation and His incarnation in history.25 In fact, Christ affirmed the world by making it and reaffirmed the fallen world including culture by becoming one of us, a specific cultural being (Hebrews 2:14-18). Since we are to follow Christ in all things, and Christ has a cultural dimension, we must follow him in that dimension as well.
3.2 Christ of Culture
Supporters of this option, so-called cultural Christians, claim that Christ is to be understood as the highest aspiration and fulfillment of culture. In this way it is possible to affirm both Christ and culture and to deny any necessary opposition between the two.
On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with his work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, selecting from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization.26
The approach inevitably leads to
accommodationism, the attempt to reconcile Christianity with what appear to be
the greatest achievements of a culture.
Thus the early church had its Hellenizers and Judaizers of the Gospel and Gnostics who reconciled Christianity with their mystical philosophy. The medieval Abélard attempted to reduce Christianity to practical morality and Christ to a great moral teacher. During the Enlightenment, Locke, Kant, and Jefferson all tried to isolate a scientifically and philosophically reasonable Christianity, and sometimes even excised elements of the faith which could be believed only on the basis of special revelation. Contemporary manifestations of accommodationism abound in the pronouncements of mainline Protestantism and the World Council of Churches.27
Such views seem to have the advantage of offering more practical versions of Christianity, guiding action in the culture as it actually is. There is typically far more emphasis on concrete proposals for loving one's neighbor and less concern with what are often seen to be the abstractions of dogmatic theology. Niebuhr himself offers a substantial defense of the need for this emphasis in Christianity.28
One can immediately see, however, that this view tends toward an error equal, and opposite, to that committed by the separatists. In its concentration on this world, the view emphasizes the Christian's horizontal dimension to the exclusion of the vertical. Without emphasis on grace and the after-life, religion easily degenerates into a legalistic "self-reliant humanism."29 This amounts in effect to an idolatrous worship of man or a denigration of God:
The accommodator of Christ to the views of the time erases the distinction between God and man by divinizing man or humanizing God.30
The inevitable result is a theology in man's image, a danger which will always arise from the apparently innocent attempt to connect Christianity with some cultural movement one wishes to endorse, to create what C. S. Lewis called "Christianity And":
You know-Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.31
The inevitable dilution of Christian orthodoxy and tendency to use a highly selective Christianity as a means to an independently conceived political end amounts to a denial that Christianity is anything more than true by occasional coincidence. This calls to mind the worst excesses of mainline Protestantism which have, as Benne says, "looked for the world to set, the, agenda for the, church."32 Thus for example,
the President. of the Society of Christian Ethics suggested to the assembled crowd at a recent annual conference that we must look to lesbian sexual relations to gain clues about what healthy, unoppressed sexual relations are like-never mind the millions of Christian couples who have lived out their Christian vows of marriage throughout the ages.33
Much more subtle cases of deference to the
ideology of political correctness abound.34
Thus in the end, the accommodationist posture leads to a distortion of the horizontal dimension as well as to a neglect of the vertical. By seeking the will of God in the world, Christians are apt to mistake the prevailing Zeitgeist for the Holy Spirit.
While there is much that is wrong about accommodations, I think an important distinction should be made. One should not compromise the fundamental message of Christianity, but in order to communicate that message to different cultures, one can translate culture-bound ideas to their equivalents in other cultures. Christ used cultural examples drawn from agrarian Palestine to express His parables. Paul altered his delivery and style depending on whether he was trying to reach Greeks, Romans, or Jews. C. S. Lewis claimed that his task was that of a translator, turning Christian doctrine into the vernacular of unscholarly people.35 Effective translation is incarnational, taking the Gospel message and finding culturally relevant clothing to express it.36
Having exposed the limitations of the two simple answers to the Christ and culture problem (rejection or affirmation of culture, for Christ), Niebuhr proceeds to three more complex answers, all of which try in some sense to acknowledge both Christ and culture, yet without reducing one to the other. The three relations considered are synthesis, paradox, and transformation.
3.3 - Christ above Culture
According to this view what is needed is not blank affirmation or rejection of culture for Christ but a synthesis of Christ and culture. It is pointed out that culture cannot be all bad because it is founded on the nature created good by God, and that although nature and culture are fallen, they are still subject to God. The view emphasizes that good works are carried out in culture, yet are only made possible by grace, so that the kingdom of grace impinges on the kingdom of the world from above. Only through grace can we love our neighbor, yet only in culture can we act on that love.
On this view, "We cannot say 'Either Christ or culture,' because we are dealing with God in both cases," yet we must not say "Both Christ and culture,' as though there were no great distinction between, them."37 For in His promises, Christ goes beyond culture, drawing us to the Father in heaven, but in His commands He directs us to act in culture and we are subject to divinely instituted representatives.
The greatest exponent of this view, Thomas Aquinas, held that the, church must be viewed as simultaneously in and beyond the world, leading people to salvation in heaven yet encouraging all that is best in this world's culture. From this vision came the great ideas of general education and protective legislation for all citizens. In his Christian Aristotelianism, Aquinas held that the church must promote both people's temporal goals and their eternal goals. He distinguished the natural law and cardinal virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude) available to all mankind from the divine law, which includes the natural law but adds the superior motivation of the theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity), which are available only to Christians through grace.
Above all, Aquinas wanted to achieve a stable relationship between church and state that would allow the conservation of values and authority. Since leaders are divinely instituted, the church backs up the government's authority to maintain order. There is also a continuum of authority between the earthly and heavenly realms, and a hierarchical organization in church and state offices.
There is a lot that is right about Aquinas's picture. He recognizes that there is one king over the temporal and the eternal. He offers practical solutions for living the Christian life in culture. His picture not only theoretically, but as a matter of historical fact, has enriched cultural institutions such as education and government. No academic can with good faith completely repudiate Aquinas since he is one of the principal reasons the academic vocation exists.
The approach is however beset by many problems. In its willingness to support. temporal authority, the church as conceived by Aquinas will tend to be an agent of social stagnation. Synthesizing Christianity with the culture of the day may amount to cultural fossilization, and thus to "the absolutization of what is relative,"38 or cultural idolatry. In its emphasis on conservation of values and authority the approach may perpetuate dictatorships and prevent legislative reform. Indeed the respect for temporal authority seems to be too great; there is a danger that man-made laws will undermine God's law, after the fashion of the Pharisees who were excoriated by Christ for nullifying "Honor thy father and mother" for the sake of their tradition (Mt. 15: 3-7).
The hierarchical structure of church and state tends to create the false picture of grades of holiness.39 And the integration of church and state creates large temptations for compromising Christian truths and for clerical abuse of temporal, political power, relying on the Sword instead of the Word to make people live by church teachings. Luther rightly attacked the church for the evil and impossible attempt to make people believe things: evil, because it produces hypocrites; impossible, because although duress changes behavior, it cannot change belief 40 (imagine, for example, being commanded to believe that someone is Napoleon on pain of torture). In all this, the fundamental weakness is the failure to realize that sin will vitiate all institutions in both church and state and that attempts at reform are liable to great corruption.
Christ and Culture in Paradox
The paradox view differs from the preceding one by maintaining that while both Christ and culture claim our loyalty, the tension between them cannot be reconciled by any lasting synthesis. The most important version of this view is Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms or realms. (In what follows, I will use the term "realm," because "two kingdoms" makes the erroneous suggestion that there are two kings.)
Luther maintained that sin is universal and remains inside the Christian throughout his earthly life, thereby vitiating any attempt to set up a holy society on earth. There is a stark contrast between two realms: the left-hand realm of the world governed by law and the right-hand realm of God governed by grace. These two realms exist side by side in a paradoxical relation, never to be resolved in this life. To get a flavor for the paradox, we may compare the following passages from Luther. In "Temporal Authority," Luther says that Christians, who belong to God's realm, "need no temporal law or sword,"41 for good works now flow freely without duress: "A good tree needs no instruction or law to bear good fruit."42 Yet in his "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants," Luther is an outspoken advocate of temporal law and sword: "let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel."43
Part of the explanation of this apparent contradiction is that the peasants belong to the realm of the world, and are therefore subject to the Law, including the temporal law laid down by divinely instituted human leaders, which condemns the rebellion. Such laws are needed, not because they will make the ungodly acceptable to God, but because they are a means of limiting the consequences of sin in this world. Christians, by contrast, do not need the Law or the sword as an incentive to act; this is not because temporal powers have no authority for them, but because, in normal circumstances, they freely want to follow this authority.
However, it is an oversimplification to suppose that Christians are freed from the realm of the world. 'In fact, a single Christian .is simultaneously subject to both realms, because each Christian contains an "inner man"44 ruled by faith and not law, and an "outer man"45 that may stumble, ruled by the Law. Thus we are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). What Luther insists on is that we are saved by grace, not works, yet because we also remain sinful in this life, we need the Law to curb our sin. Thus each Christian is a subject of two realms--two "kingdoms," but one king, Christ.46
The two realms distinction has far-reaching consequences. Since one is saved by grace, not works, there are no grades of holiness, or any need to separate oneself from culture. This means that any vocation (provided it is a true vocation, a station instituted by God) can be' pursued for the' glory of God. In that sense, Christians can participate fully in what is best in culture: we are "set free to serve." Our motivation for service comes from gratitude born of faith in God's love for us, but the specific techniques of service can be derived from the surrounding culture. This freedom of the Christian is balanced by a respect for temporal law and secular government (Rom. 13:1-7) as a means of curbing the consequences of sin. This balancing act will sometimes lead to paradox: as Christians under grace, we should not return harm for harm, but in time of war, we may rightly be ordered to take lip arms,47 if it is the only way of limiting greater evil. Yet if a leader is wrong, in the sense of commanding us to do something contrary to God's law, we are not bound to obey "for it is no one's duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men (Acts 5:29)."48
Niebuhr correctly perceives a number of advantages in Luther's view. It is completely realistic about the extent of human sin and the continuing need of law to control it. At the same time, Luther does not fall into separatism or self-righteousness, encouraging any honorable service to culture. While the Two Realms doctrine suggests to some a compartmentalization of faith and works,49 Niebuhr is aware that this misunderstands the interrelations between the realms:
It is a great error to confuse the parallelistic dualism of separated spiritual and temporal life with the interactionism of Luther's gospel of faith in Christ working by love in the world of culture.50
On the other hand, Niebuhr thinks there is
something to be said for two charges against the paradox view.51 First, it tends toward antinomianism: if we
are justified by grace, not works, and sin inevitably persists in the
Christian, why should he not sin all the more? Second, it leads to cultural
conservatism: if we should accept the temporal authority of existing
institutions and rulers, it would seem to be unmotivated, perhaps even wrong,
to call for reform. Along with this is the idea that Luther views the role of
Law in a purely negative fashion (as curb and mirror, the first two uses of the
Law), but does not support its positive role (as guide, the third use of the
Law) in improving society.52
Christ the Transformer of Culture
This last option is similar to the preceding except that it is more optimistic about the ability of Christians to improve culture. It still affirms the universality of sin, but maintains that cultures can be converted. One of the fundamental theological reasons for this optimism is the view that the Fall only perverted things which were created good, that these things remain inherently good and capable of reform, even though they have been misdirected.53
The suggestion is not that mankind can by its own efforts create a more holy culture, but that through the action of grace, this can happen. This leads to the idea of a Holy Christian community here on earth, visibly set apart from non-Christian culture. Rather doubtfully, Niebuhr associates this idea with Augustine, though he admits that in various ways Augustine seemed to affirm all five answers.54 Certainly, Augustine was impressed by the regeneration of Caesar-centered Rome as a Christian city, although Augustine was much more pessimistic than a typical transformationist about the fortune of any culture of this world. A better example is Calvin who emphasized the positive, third use of the Law as a guide to social reform, at least for the elect (although Calvinists have typically been more optimistic than Calvin himself, and sometimes even inclined to perfectionism), and various Christian utopians such as F. D. Maurice who championed a Christian socialist society.
Niebuhr offers no evaluation of the basic strengths and weaknesses of the transformationist view, itself a sign that he thinks it is the best. We will see, however, that it is vulnerable to serious objections.
II. An Evaluation of Niebuhr's Methodology and Presentation
Niebuhr's methodological pluralism55 can be analyzed into several claims which Niebuhr does not clearly distinguish.
(Ml) All five of the types are sometimes appropriate.
(M2) No one of the five types is simply and basically correct.
(M3) It is impossible to find one correct answer (in this or any other typology) to the Christ and culture problem.
The weakest claim, (Ml), is quite plausible. Yancey, for example, confirms the intuition:
I remember that Niebuhr's book left me feeling enlightened, but as confused as ever. All the approaches seemed to have something to contribute, and in fact, I could point to biblical examples of each one.56
While the claim may be true, the problem
with Niebuhr's approach is that he does not provide a principle for deciding
when one of the five types is operative, and when it is not. His injunction to
individual Christians to find the answer for themselves in each decision57
comes perilously close to a situationalist ethic. At the very least then,
Niebuhr's approach is incomplete.
More troubling is the stronger claim (M2). It is clear that (M2) does not follow from (Ml), since one of the five answers might subsume the others as special eases, in such a way that it agrees with them whenever they are appropriate and otherwise disagrees. Indeed, as Yoder has noted, in view of his logical strategy in presenting the five types, this seems to be exactly Niebuhr's tacit view of the transformation option.
We see this preference in the fact that in the structure of his presentation Transformation takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings . . . a presentation following the pattern of thesis, antithesis and synthesis constitutes an implicit argument in favor of the last option reported.58
Thus Niebuhr's dialectic approach is at
odds with his professed pluralism: he clearly does think the transformationist
option is basically correct. This also conflicts with the even stronger claim
(M3) of ultimate skepticism, which, as Yoder points out, is inconsistent with
the widely held orthodox assumption that Christians can know the will of God.59
The irony is that Niebuhr offers no explicit defense (but only an explication of) the transformationist option and considers no objections. The superficial plausibility of his presentation also seems suspiciously to depend on a lack of specific proposals. Indeed,
what H. Richard Niebuhr meant by "transformation" is so inadequately defined that its popularity with the readers seems to correlate with an assumption that it is more or less indistinguishable from our western doctrine of progress... 60
In practice, the transformationist view is vulnerable to devastating objections. It tends to a utopianism which underestimates the continuing power of sin to totter man-made Towers of Babel. Even within the church; history simply does not bear out such optimism. At the same time, such earthbound hopes tend to undermine the belief in an afterlife by seeking a heaven on earth. No one expressed the deceitfulness of such an approach better than C. S. Lewis.
When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they go about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile on earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the story would lie nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever.61
The emphasis on transforming culture has
the danger, of becoming the whole reason for the church's existence. The
"social gospel" may quickly replace the true gospel of grace and promise with a
works-righteous religion of Law, a danger which has been clearly realized in
the strident, coercive activism of some of the main-line Protestant churches.
Although Calvin's Institutes stressed the primacy of grace, the pervasive
direct action approach of a basically Calvinist America62 has often relied on the Law to force social
reform, exchanging the Word for the Sword.
It should also be noted that some of Niebuhr's objections to the rival answers are unfair. Yoder, himself a separatist, rightly points out that some of Niebuhr's objections to the Christ against Culture view rely on a question-begging definition of culture. On Niebuhr's conception, culture is "monolithic,"63 an all-inclusive category covering everything man does to nature. Taken literally, this automatically makes rejection of culture absurd, since the rejection itself will be carried on by human activity and hence in culture. Yet the fact is that separatists aim to be countercultural, not cultural. They reject certain aspects of mainstream culture, but not culture in toto. For example,
Tolstoy was in favor of story-telling, the novel, the folk-tale, the arts, the family, the village, the schools, the restoration of peasant crafts. and heavy labor in the fields.64
Likewise Tertullian affirmed many aspects
of Roman culture, such as the legal system and social order.
As Yoder argues, the separatist is not opposed to culture in Niebuhr's sense, but to cultural idolatry, those aspects of culture that attempt to supplant primary allegiance to the Lordship of Christ. For this reason, Niebuhr is clearly mistaken in identifying culture, monolithically conceived, with "the world":
[W]hen the New Testament speaks of "world" it precisely does not mean all of culture. It means rather culture as self-glorifying or culture as autonomous. . .65
The distinction is clearly present in
Jesus' reply to the question about taxes (Mt. 22:18-2 1). The taxes indeed
belong to Caesar, but the claims to sacred status inscribed on the coin and the
implied primary allegiance do not. In this sense, no Christian should deny that
there can be rejection of culture, since "every morally accountable affirmation
of culture discriminates."66
Thus the real question is not whether we should accept or reject culture en bloc, but what is the correct principle of discrimination. Unfortunately, even though Tertullian and Tolstoy may have been saddled with an inappropriate definition of culture, it remains quite clear that they lack such a principle. Tertullian's view does tend to a self-righteous monasticism, and Tolstoy's rejection of the state is incompatible with our duties to divinely instituted officers and leaders. We can reject the supreme authority of the state without repudiating its secondary, temporal authority. I will argue shortly, however, that the paradox view does provide a correct principle of discrimination.
III. The Lutheran Difference: A Defense of the Paradoxical Vision
1. A Negative Defense against Objections
It is odd that the paradox view is still subjected to the charge of antinomianisin, since its most famous exponents, Paul and Luther, both anticipated and answered the charge in their day.67 As Luther makes clear, since each Christian is both saint and sinner, he remains subject to Law in his sinful nature. On the other hand, the inner man of faith is not subject to Law, but does not need to be since he inevitably desires to fulfill the Law and even go further than the Law requires. Like the apple tree, the inner man produces good fruit naturally, not because a rule book requires it, and indeed even if no rule requires it.
The claim that the "paradox" view inevitably leads to a quietist cultural conservatism no doubt gains its popularity from the marginalization of Twentieth Century Lutherans.68 However, it is a fallacy to argue that the Lutheran church's lack of influence is necessarily a consequence of its foundational theology: it could be that the dominance of rival influences, (such as Calvinism) has drowned out the Lutheran voice or that the theology has not been effectively integrated with Lutheran practice. In the latter vein, for example, some would argue that Lutherans have so emphasized the importance of justification that sanctification has been neglected.
It is true that restraint in public involvement of the church itself is a natural consequence of Lutheran theology. Direct social action by the church is normally resisted as a contamination of the Word with the Sword. In view of the embarrassing excesses of main-line Protestantism such restraint seems wise. On the other hand, the quietism of individual lay members of the church is not justified by a proper understanding of Lutheran vocation. While direct action of the church is discouraged, the Lutheran church strongly affirms indirect influence on culture69 via the activity of church members pursuing their secular vocations. The church prepares the laity with the Word which then shapes and transforms the way in which secular work is accomplished.
The idea that vocation and faith are to be rigidly compartmentalized is anathema to a correct understanding of vocation. As Luther said, a vocation is a cross, and the distinctive way in which a Christian carries this cross is a powerful witness and testimony to the faith.70 Indeed, as Wingmen says, Luther thought of the Christian life as a following of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection through the Two Realms.
The Christian is crucified by the law in his vocation, under the earthly government; and he arises through the gospel, in the church under the spiritual government.71
Understood aright therefore, Christian vocation is anything but a timid accommodation to existing cultural institutions. In fact, as Bonhoeffer said,
The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God's grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for. Luther did not return to, the world because he had arrived at a more positive attitude towards it'. . . He intended his action to express a radical protest against the secularization of Christianity which had taken place within monasticism. By recalling Christians into the world he called them paradoxically out of it all the more. . . . His call was essentially a call to enter the visible church of the incarnate Lord.72
For this reason, the modern tendency noted by Neuhaus and Carter toward the "privatization" of religion is utterly at odds with a genuine Christian vocation which necessarily involves visible, public expression. Yet despite this "cost of discipleship," the paradox view does not encourage a safe quietism. Rather the individual life of each faithful Christian should constitute a protest statement against worldly corruption and idolatry. As Thielicke says,
Woe unto you, if you, the servant of God, do not tell the state what it is and what it owes to God. .. . If you really give God what belongs to him, then that will not occur in your hymn-singing and church services . . You must bear your message into public life; you must be the salt of the earth73
The most severe charge against the paradox view is that its emphasis on obedience to the rulers of the Kingdom of the World encouraged the capitulation to Fascism of the German Christians.74 However, the action was justified by a false, compartmentalized understanding of the two realms75 (which we saw Niebuhr himself rejects):
Only the spiritual sphere . . . is regarded as within the competence of the divine claim and command. The secular sphere is viewed as a zone in which only economic, political, and social laws apply.76
But for One thing, the two realms overlap,
and for another, both are subject to God, and as we saw, Luther insisted that
the exigencies of one's secular vocation do not exempt one from God's law.77
It is true that Luther supported patient endurance of an oppressive government if indeed it was instituted by God. For in this ease one of the citizen's vocations is to be a subject of that government. Luther condemned the peasant uprising precisely because it was an abandonment of this vocation, and thus a rejection of God's authority. The peasant's proper role was to influence oppressive leadership by protest within vocation, and, if that should fail, to put their trust in God's ability to raise up an enemy for the oppressor. But it is quite different in the case of a kingdom such as the Turks, which was "instituted for the purpose of dishonoring God,"78 as it was an intentional assault on Christendom. In this case, Christians are not only permitted but required to fight the kingdom:79 the correct vocation is one of a soldier.
A convincing case can be made that the Nazi government was not instituted by God, but by the devil, and was intent on destroying not only Christianity, but the whole monotheistic worldview, and replacing it with a culturally idolatrous nationalism.
National socialism replaces monotheism, going so far as to assume the role of the one God of the Bible. With stunning blasphemy and idolatry, the commandment to have no other gods is appropriated to enforce allegiance to the Nazi party.80
Whatever the failures of the visible church
at that time, Lutheran theology is clearly opposed to such Volkstum ("folk," or
"national spirit") worship.81
Again, it has been claimed that the paradox view leads to social stagnation. Although the Lutheran may witness via his vocation, there seems little incentive to call for significant reforms or indeed new vocations provided the society is genuinely ordered by those instituted by God. To a degree, a defensive reply seems appropriate. We live in an age where irresponsibility, abandonment of vocation, is widespread, particularly in that most important of vocations, parenthood. The ubiquity of day-care allows even those who can afford to raise their own children to abdicate that vocation. As Wingren argues, since a vocation is a cross and we are to take up our appointed cross, such abandonment of vocation is sin.82 With the declining willingness of Christians to carry their own cross, rhetoric opposing "social stagnation" seems less apt than a call to restoration of institutions already seriously undermined.
On the other hand, Luther certainly believed that vocations were dynamic. Vocations are sent to us by God, and since His creative love is continuing, both the form and content of these vocations is apt to change.
The variable element is love, which can freely go its way, since it is God. The love of the new man, which shapes his "use" of his office, is a form of God's creation in the world. 83
As a result, "In the exercise of his
vocation man becomes a mask for God."84
Innovation and improvement in one's vocation, and flexible adaptation to
changing situations and demands, are not things that need to be mandated.
Indeed, more laws would merely kill a tree which is naturally able to grow and
renew its fruit.
Furthermore, Luther's view supports the use of any techniques supplied by secular advances, so long as they can be applied without sin. A Christian computer scientist looks to advances in microprocessors, not Scripture, to increase his or her computational power. On the other hand, abortion, though it is a secular medical technique, should normally be eschewed by a Christian doctor85 as a part of the protest of his or her vocation under God.
2. A Positive Defense
We agreed with Yoder that any adequate account of Christ and culture should yield a principle of discrimination, a way of telling which aspects of culture should be affirmed, and which should he rejected, for God. It should by now be clear that the Two Realms doctrine and the doctrine of vocation together accomplish just that.
The paradoxical view avoids self-righteous separatism on the one side and double-minded irresponsibility on the other, by affirming any earthly calling which is not in itself sinful (Obviously the office-holder will continue to sin, but it is important that the office itself is not sinful.) Likewise secular techniques are affirmed so long as they do not conflict with God's Word. Temporal authority is respected and even tyranny is endured provided it is instituted by God, though not without protest from within the vocation of suffering servant; But government which in its nature directly opposes Christ must be resisted, even with force.
Reform and innovation are considered good, so long as they are the fruits of a creative agape. We must however test the fruits, because
We face not only the possibility of a divine transformation of the world but a satanic transformation as well.86
Where the Word is preached in truth and
faithfulness, God will transform the world for the better through individual
laity. This hope is far more realistic than the legalistic hedges of Calvinism,
for, as Lewis reminds us, "You cannot make men good by law: and without good
men you cannot have a good society."87
Indeed we see in the present state of our society considerable empirical
evidence that law without inner transformation is struggling to maintain order
(and even non-Christian prison governors have noted that prison evangelism
reduces recidivism more than socialization attempts).
On the other hand, the paradox view will remind us of the continued presence of sin and the liability of all earthly projects to failure. This should guard us from the utopianism that would otherwise divert our gaze from our eternal goal. With its emphasis on a foundation of Word, not Sword, the Lutheran church (and those sympathetic with its paradoxical vision) can more easily avoid the temptation to corruption by the quest for temporal power. At the same time, it can equip its members with the means to effect transformation of society, through their costly witness and protest and willingness to accept their appointed cross.
Angus Menage is Associate Professor of Science and Philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin.
Benne, Robert. The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Revised Edition. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1963.
Carter, Stephen L. The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Revised Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
__________ "Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger." In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
_________ The Screwtape Letters. Revised Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
_________ "The Weight of Glory." In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Luther, Martin. "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants." In Luther's Works, Volume 46, The Christian in Society III. Ed. Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967, pp. 45-55.
________ "The Freedom of a Christian." In Luther's Works, Volume 3 1, Career of the Reformer I. Ed. Harold J. Grimm. Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1957, pp. 327-377.
_________ "On War Against the Turk." In Luther's Works, Volume 46, The Christian in Society III. Ed. Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967, pp. 155-205. Luther, Martin. "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed." In Luther's Works, Volume 45, The Christian in Society II. Ed. Walther I. Brandt. Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1962, pp. 75-129.
_________ "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved." In Luther's Works, Volume 46, The Christian in Society III. Ed. Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967, pp. 87-137.
Marty, Martin E. Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. Fort Worth: Dial, 1970.
Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1951. (First Harper Torch Book, 1956.)
_________ The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.
Noll, Mark. "The Lutheran Difference." In First Things, February, 1992, 3 1-40.
"That They May Have Life: A Statement of The Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod." In First Things, August/September 1997, 47-50.
Thielicke, Helmut. Being Human . . . Becoming Human: An Essay in Christian Anthropology (translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley). Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1984.
_________ How to Believe Again. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life. Trans. Constance Garnett. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Veith Jr., Gene Edward. Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-. Christian Worldview. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1993.
Wingren, Gustaf. Luther on Vocation. Trans. Carl C. Rasmussen. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957.
Yancey, Philip. "A State of Ungrace." Christianity Today, February 3rd, 1997, 3 1-37.
Yoder, John Howard. "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture." In Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, John Howard Yoder (co-authors). Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 1996.
1 See Veith, Modern Fascism, chapter 4.
2 Of course, oppression has also gone in the opposite direction, when Christians have wrongly taken up the sword and tried to convert non-Christians by force, as will be discussed later.
3 Lewis, "The Weight of Glory," 19.
4 Carter, The Culture of Disbelief 11
5 Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square.
6 Carter, The Culture of Disbelief 22.
7 Noll, "The Lutheran Difference.''
8 Benne, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century.
9 Officially, because as we shall see, Niebuhr seems to regard one of the five answers as an inclusive synthesis of the other four, retaining their strengths but avoiding their weaknesses, and thus, in fact, closer to the real truth.
10 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 231.
11 Ibid., 2.
12 ibid., 232.
13 Ibid., 233.
14 Ibid., 28.
16 See KoIb's chapter in this volume for a deeper understanding of the vertical and horizontal dimensions.
17 Ibid., 32.
18 Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, 211.
19 Ibid., 230-23 1. Also quoted in Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 60-61.
20 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 68.
21 Ibid., 69.
22 In other words, it is not monasticism itself, but certain self-righteous reasons for pursuing it that are objectionable.
23 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 71.
24 Yoder, however, casts doubt on the orthodoxy of Niebuhr's appeal to the Trinity. See especially Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned," 6 1-65.
25 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 81
26 Ibid., 83.
27 See Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 26-44.
28 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 101-108.
29 Ibid., 113.
30 Ibid., 120.
31 Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 115.
32 Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 39.
33 Ibid., 36
34 See the chapter by Veith for a sustained analysis and critique of the varieties of contemporary accommodationism.
35 Lewis, "Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger," 183.
36 For more on this theme, see the chapters by Alberto Garcia and Victor Raj in this volume.
37 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. 122.
38 Ibid 145.
39 Ibid., 147.
40 See for example Luther, "Temporal Authority," 108.
41 Ibid., 89.
43 Luther, "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants," 50. Part of this passage is also quoted in Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 170.
44 See Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," 344-358
45 Ibid., 358-371.
46 For more on the Two Kingdoms, see Ed Veith's chapter in this volume.
47 See Luther, "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved."
48 Luther, "Temporal Authority," 125.
49 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 171.
50 Ibid., 179
51 ibid., 187.
52 Whether or not Lutherans should endorse the Third Use of the Law is a highly debatable issue. At times Luther seems to explicitly reject it, but what he is rejecting is that the Law can somehow aid in salvation. The idea that the Law can guide Christian living without contributing to salvation is at least compatible with this.
53 Ibid., 194.
54 Ibid., 207.
55 See the earlier quotation from Niebuhr (Christ and Culture, 231) stating his methodological pluralism at the beginning of the section on Niebuhr's framework.
56 Yancey, "A State of Ungrace," 33.
57 Niebuhr, Christ and Cultare, 233.
58 Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned," 41-42.
59 Ibid., 72.
60 Ibid., 53.
61 Lewis, "The Weight of Glory," 8. To be sure, Lewis was talking of secular utopianism, but his remarks apply equally to a religious variant.
62 That America is basically Calvinist in its outlook has been convincingly shown in H. Richard Niebuhr's The Kingdom of God in America, and Martin B. Marty's Righteous Empire. For a recent discussion, see Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 26-30. See also NolI, "The Lutheran Difference."
63 Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned," 54
64 Ibid., 66
65 Ibid., 70.
66 Ibid., 55.
67 See, for example, Romans 6 and Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," 358.
68 See Noll, "The Lutheran Difference," 31.
69 See Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, ch. 6.
70 For more on this theme, see Alberto Garcia's chapter in this volume.
71 Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 30.
72 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 298. For more on this theme, see Alberto Garcia's chapter in this volume.
73 Thielicke, How to Believe Again, 157.
74 See the discussion in Veith, Modern Fascism, ch. 4.
75 See also Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 79.
76 Thielicke, Being Human . . . Becoming Human, 256.
77 See also Veith, Modern Fascism, 63
78 Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 87.
79 See Luther, "On War Against the Turk."
80 Veith, Modern Fascism, 68.
81 See Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 78.
82 Ibid., 88-89, 121. The classic biblical text is 1 Cor. 7:20.
83 Ibid., 150.
84 Ibid., I80.
85 Noted exceptions include those cases where the death of the fetus is a tragically unavoidable consequence of saving the mother's life. An excellent statement on abortion is The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod document "That They May Have Life," reprinted in First Things, Number 75, 1997, pp. 47-50.
86 Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 149.
87 Lewis, Mere Christianity, 72.
Taken from Christ and Culture in Dialogue, copyright 1999. Used by permission of Concordia Publishing House , St. Louis, MO 63118-3968. You can order Christ and Culture in Dialogue by contacting CPH at 1-800-325-3040.
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