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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, ...

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April 22, 2002

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