How are we to understand the relationship between Christian faith and the world in which it is to be believed and practiced? Over 50 years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, in his Christ and Culture, outlined five approaches to culture in Christian history. These still provide a helpful framework today:-
1. Christ against culture. This represents a tradition of Christian opposition, not to culture per se, but to existing cultures. The Christian world view is seen as diametrically opposed to non-Christian world views and their cultural outworking. Tertullian asked, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” The Christians methods are not those of the the culture – politics, art, philosophy, etc, but those of the prophet. The theological basis lies in the fallenness of man, and in the call to a different way of life.
2. The Christ of culture. This identifies Christianity with existing cultural views and programs for action, and is associated with ancient Gnostic movements (which Tertullian opposed), liberal theology of the 19th century, and the tendency to identify Christianity with certain political ideologies, whether socialist or capitalist. This view is characterised by a more optimistic view of man, and by a less radical view of the gospel.
These first two represent extremes; the following represent mediating traditions:-
3. Christ above culture represents the Thomistic view, which adds revelation to reason, and adds God’s grace to that which we are by nature alone incapable. It attempts to value nature and the rational powers God has given us.
4. Christ and culture in paradox represents Lutheran and some Anabaptist theology. This view recognises the tension between nature and grace, the old man and the new. Attention concentrates on lving with the conflicting demands of the two kingdoms. On the one hand, we are called to justice and love; but on the other hand, sin makes just laws and loving deeds ineffective. We must use power as well: political, economic and even military power. The resultant ethic is situational and pragmatic.
5. Christ the transformer of culture. Represented by Augustinian and reformed theology. The theological motif is “creation, law, sin, grace”. Sin distorts God’s law-governed creation, but grace restores people to obeying God’s law in their creational tasks. Thus human culture, with art, science, work and leisure, is divinely ordained and subject to God’s law. A Christian world view mandates cultural involvement with a view to changing things for the better.