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Posts Tagged ‘Niebuhr’


D.A. Carson re-enters the discussion of Christianity’s relationship with culture in Christ and Culture Revisited.  I say re-enters because he hits some similar issues in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism and his more recent Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.  This time he evaluates the classic, influential work of H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.  He arrives at the same essential point that I did while in seminary, just in a far more thoughtful and thorough way.  Due to my circumstances, it may have taken me as long to read it as it did for him to write it.

Here is a quick summery of Carson’s conclusions for you:

“Niebuhr’s typology offers his five types as slightly idealized competing options.  Yet this emphasis on choosing from among the options does not square with the canonical function of Scripture.  … Christians do not have the right to choose one of the options in the fivefold typology as if it were the whole.  The name of that game is reductionism.”

What Carson does is rightly is say that no one paradigm fits every situation.  Scripture reveals very different responses to different circumstances as people sought to live life under the gaze of God.  We are to utilize wisdom, always checking our hearts with Scripture lest we deceive ourselves, to chart the best course.

In developing this, Carson digs into some good biblical theology.  This is so we live in light of the main turning points of redemptive history (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), and in light of the already/not yet realities of our salvation.  When we focus on only one or two turning points of redemptive history we fall into reductionism and hover in one (often knee-jerk) response to what is happening around us.

Inevitably Christians find themselves squeezed between the claims and obligations of the broader culture and their allegiance to Christ.  The tensions between Christ and culture are both diverse and complex, but from a Christian perspective they find their origins in the stubborn refusal of human beings, made in God’s image, to acknowledge their creaturely dependence on their Maker. … Although there are better and worse examples of how these tensions might play out, there is no ideal stable paradigm that can be transported to other times and places: every culture is perpetually in flux, ensuring that no political structure is a permanent “solution” to the tension.

It may sound to some as relativism, but it really isn’t.  We apply unchanging standards to changing circumstances.  So at times we will adopt cultural practices, at times abandon them, at times adapt them etc.

It is when Carson begins to examine the various uses of the term ‘culture’ that this book gets a bit heady and philosophical.  It is at moments like that when I realize how average a thinker and how poorly read I am.  But my calling is different from his.  He wisely says you can jump to the next chapter.

He focuses a great deal of attention of the relationship between church and state (and how those terms are variously used).  In our quest for one ideal arraingment, we err.  He traces the development of various views in the West (notably the U.S. and France).  We should learn to tread lightly when wanting to criticize Christians in other cultures.  We often don’t have the frame of reference, and circumstances, they do.  And we often flounder in our own circumstances.  I gather we should take the log out of our eyes.

Overall it was a good read, but not an easy read.  But pastors and elders should labor through that they might shepherd their people through this potential quagmire.  I’m glad Carson revisited some old ground and gave us a better lay of the land.

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You can find it here.  It briefly discusses his latest book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.  He sums up why he is Reformed, but not TR.  I think he’s dead on about the mega-churches, at least the ones I’m familiar with (or their smaller copies).  And I do believe I wrote the same summary of culture in my response paper to Niebuhr’s classic book Christ and Culture while I was in seminary.

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