"In the World, but…"
The theological world owes a great debt to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, which invited Yale professor H. Richard Niebuhr to deliver the lectures that resulted in Christ and Culture (1951), one of the most influential Christian books of the past century. Perhaps no other book has dominated an entire theological conversation for so long. Niebuhr's famous "five types" continue to serve as the launching point for most discussions of the interaction of Christianity and culture.
To mark this 50th anniversary, HarperSanFrancisco has reissued Christ and Culture with a winsome foreword by Martin Marty, a lengthy and strangely defensive preface by ethicist James Gustafson (Niebuhr's student and friend), and a bonus essay, "Types of Christian Ethics" (1942), in which Niebuhr began to work out his analytical framework.
Like Christians of other persuasions, evangelicals have often used Niebuhr's book as a point of departure to define how we should—and should not—interact with contemporary culture. Evangelicals have inhabited all of Niebuhr's types. And, given the varied circumstances in which evangelicals have sought to serve Christ, each type can be seen to offer its own integrity—despite Niebuhr's own sometimes jaundiced view of this or that option.
Niebuhr's first type, "Christ against culture," characterizes the sectarian impulse. In "Types of Christian Ethics," Niebuhr calls this the "new law" type. Christians in this mode see the world outside the church as hopelessly corrupted by sin. The kingdom of God comes to supersede it—currently in the purity of the church, and ultimately in the messianic kingdom. God calls Christians to "come out from among them and be ye separate" in communities of holiness. Mennonites, Baptists, Christian Brethren, Pentecostals, and most types of fundamentalists have included individuals and congregations that fit this model.
At the other end of the typology lies the model of "Christ of culture," in which the absolute conflict of one against the other gives way to a harmony between them. Christians in this mode seek to discern and then champion the highest moral and spiritual common ground between the teachings of Christianity and the noblest values of contemporary culture. Niebuhr identified this model with Germany's "Culture Protestantism" of the late 19th and early 20th century, with American Whigs such as Thomas Jefferson, and with Victorian liberals such as John Stuart Mill. Evangelicals have manifested this type whenever we have closely associated God and country and assumed that our nations are Christian, or "almost," so that with enthusiasm and effort we can realize that ideal.
Three Mediating Positions
Between these two extremes lie three mediating positions. The first is "Christ above culture," the outlook of Thomas Aquinas and of many Roman Catholics ever since. In this view, all that is good in human culture is a gift from God. But to be fully realized, this good requires Christian revelation and the mediation of the church. Thus Aristotle's insights can be received joyfully by the Christian, even as they are recognized as needing Christian theology to fulfill them. Such truths as the Trinity and the Atonement are accessible only via revelation, just as the sacramental life of the church provides blessings for us that no amount of non-Christian culture can produce.
This view is uncommon among evangelicals but not altogether unknown. Consider, for example, evangelical missionaries who emphasize anticipations of Christian revelation in the beliefs of non-Christian peoples. Evangelical intellectuals who affirm the essential congeniality of the gospel with this or that non-Christian author—as the apologists of the early church allied themselves with Plato—might also fit in this category.