Two glaring problems exist in the Christ of Culture view.
First, Christ of Culture views tend to downplay the need for special revelation and overplay the content and efficacy of general revelation. Human reason (especially as dictated by the prevailing sensibilities of the day, e.g. Platonism for the Gnostics and Enlightenment philosophy for Liberals) determines what parts of Scripture are accurate and authoritative. Niebuhr, whose view of the accuracy of the Scriptures is not substantively different from that of these liberals, still clinches the problem of authority found in the Christ of culture view: “Loyalty to contemporary culture has so far qualified the loyalty to Christ that he has been abandoned in favor of an idol called by his name.” These “cultural Christians” emphasize whatever part of Christ’s message agrees with reason (read: common sentiment). At all costs they strive to lose the offense of the gospel. In the end, they deny the gospel itself and never quite assuage the world’s objections.
Second, my recent comments about the pervasiveness of depravity fit here as well. In this case, however, the problem is not only the denial of depravity within the Christian community, but the denial of depravity altogether. All of human civilization maybe accepted as good and from God as Creator. He is the father of all humans, and therefore, everything they make is good. On this view, all of culture is good and can only stand to get better. But the Scriptures are, if possible, even clearer on universal total depravity then they are concerning continuing depravity in the lives of the regenerate.
Both Old and New Testaments explicitly vitiate the denial of universal depravity. For instance, Solomon candidly admits, “there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kgs 8:46). The familiar NT verse, Romans 3:23, also shows it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
22 September 2006
Two glaring problems exist in the Christ of Culture view.
20 September 2006
I discovered this summer just how controversial the topic of worship really is when I attempted to record a few of my opinions about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. I actually got a few comments! But our current worship wars (and the culture wars behind them) are not without historical precedent. The Puritans waged war (at times literally) against the established church on this very matter. I think their starting point, specifically their definition of worship, in the debate ought to be held in common by all sides of the debate today. I love especially the John Owen quote (italics mine).
These problems [i.e., areas of disagreement] concerned the forms and externals of worship only, and our present interest is rather in the reality of worship, as the Puritans understood it. Here, wherever else they differed, they were at one, and the written material they have left us is completely homogeneous…. What is worship? It is, says John Owen, an activity designed to “raise unto God a revenue of glory out of the creation.” In the broadest sense of the word, all true piety is worship. “Godliness is a worship,” wrote Swinnock. “Worship comprehends all that respect which man oweth and giveth to his Maker…. It is the tribute which we pay to the King of Kings, whereby we acknowledge his sovereignty over us, and our dependence on him…. All that inward reverence and respect, all that outward obedience and service to God, which the word (sc., godliness) enjoineth, is included in this one word worship.” Usually, however, the Puritans used the word in its narrower and more common sense, to signify all our communion with God: invocation, adoration, meditation, praise, prayer, and the receiving of instruction from His word, both in public and in private (J. I. Packer, “The Puritan Approach to Worship,” The Puritan Papers, vol. 3, p. 9).
18 September 2006
At the opposite side of the spectrum from the Christ against Culture view, Niebuhr outlines the view he calls “Christ of Culture.” This view understands the Christ who is recorded in the Gospels to be the author of human civilization. The claims of Christ are neatly equated with the best humans have to offer. (As we will see later, “best” is evaluated according to the ethics of the zeitgeist.)
Three historical examples elucidate. Niebuhr understands the Gnostics of the 2nd century and Peter Abelard of the 12th century to represent this view historically. As he notes of the former, “what they sought to do was to reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.” Abelard wrote, “We find the way of life of the pagan philosophers [specifically Socrates and Plato], as much as their teaching, expresses evangelical and apostolic perfection very strongly indeed; they differ from the Christian religion in nothing or very little.” At the turn of the twentieth century, Protestantism was plagued by the same mode of thinking. Liberalism incorporated all the discoveries, methodologies, and presuppositions of the Enlightenment and Industrial Ages into their interpretation and evaluation of the Scriptures. The result was a denial of almost every basic doctrine in the Scriptures, except for the existence of God himself.
The mission of believers, under the Christ of Culture framework, is to accentuate what is good in society. There is no real message of depravity and redemption. There is only a message of personal responsibility and social improvement. Therefore proclamation entails an exposition of the new law of Christ as understood by the prevailing ethical sentiment of the day. Social work and improvement (again the standard of improvement is the spirit of the times) is central to the believer’s obligation, and the gospel ministry is indistinguishable from the obligation to improve society.
15 September 2006
As we have seen, the Christ against Culture view interprets the call to separate from the world in ways that contradict the Great Commission and other Biblical obligations to the outside world. The underlying problem here is a sad case of tunnel vision.
What is apparent on the surface of things is that this view assumes that holiness entails physical separation from civilization. For instance, among the Amish, while ideas like Hochmut (pride) and Demut (humility) are emphasized, these heart conditions are irrevocably tied up with specific external expressions. The association is so strong that one may actually be arrogant about his humility, that is, spiritually haughty about his externally self-humiliating practices. Paul seems to address this very idea when he denounced the Colossian heresy, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2:23). So a commendable desire for holiness becomes a grotesque display of arrogance because holiness is reduced to observing certain external taboos.
Beneath the surface is a failure to acknowledge pervasive depravity. It is ironic that the type of Christ-culture answer that is so keenly aware of the pervasive corruption due to sin in human civilization appears theologically oblivious to a continuing sin problem in the life of the reconstituted community. But if they realized the depth of their problem, they would also realize the helplessness of this solution.
To sum up the evaluation then, the Christ against Culture view recognizes the pervasive problem of sin in civilization, but it fails to fully understand it. In striving “to leave this world,” they have not only failed to solve the problem of sin, they have aggravated it by neglecting clear commands of Christ to be salt and light in front of a watching world.
14 September 2006
This is a good reason to remember that all counseling (especially self-confrontation) must be gospel-centered. We must blaze a spotlight on sin's deadliness and its "double cure," pardon and freedom through Jesus.
13 September 2006
Every once in a while, I am surprised by just how biblical the Puritans were.
The Puritans seldom concerned themselves with the moment, real or imagined, of a man’s turning to God; they were more concerned with a man’s present state. This does not mean, of course that they were indifferent to the question of conversion, it means rather that they realised clearly that a true conversion will be shown by its fruit, and they looked for that fruit as evidence that a work of grace had taken place in the man’s heart. If this work of grace had taken place then, they said, one great overriding result would follow, that is, the man would have a deep and continually deepening sense of sin. And they resolutely refused to offer any comfort unless they were convinced that a real sense of sin was present. Thus “the conscience is not to be healed if it be not wounded. Thou preachest and pressest the law, comminations, the judgment to come, and that with much earnestness and importunity. He which hears, if he be not terrified, if he be not troubled, is not to be comforted” [Augustine?]. Or again, says Perkins, “First of all a man must have knowledge of four things, of the law of God, of sin against the law, of the guilt of sin, and of the judgment of God against sin, which is eternal wrath.” Or again “never any of God’s children,” says Greenham, “were comforted thoroughly, but they were first humbled for their sins” (G. A. Hemming, “The Puritans’ Dealings with Troubled Souls,” in The Puritan Papers, vol. 1, p. 32).
I found this approach strikingly parallel to that of John in his first epistle. There too the first mark of perseverance is confession of sin, for ”if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
12 September 2006
11 September 2006
As we have already seen, none of the five schools of thought that Niebuhr devised existed perfectly in history. We have to keep this caveat in mind while we quickly critique each view. I am simplifying broad issues into a few hundred words, and, at times, oversimplification is nearly inevitable. Nevertheless, I find it helpful to critique an extreme manifestation of this position (the Amish) in order to bring out the logical tendency of all positions like it. I’ll point out two points of critique today and round out the week with a third.
First, the Christ against Culture view fails to recognize that the radical statements of Christ (e.g., “hate father and mother”) must be related to the demands of God elsewhere in the Scripture. The demands of Christ are an expression of the universal, overarching moral law of God. Eventually, I’ll show more explicitly that God has expectations for believers with respect to family, to government, to science and technology, and to art. These expectations must be compatible with the demands of Christ and vice versa. No view which places these sides in ultimate contradiction with each other is tenable.
Second, this view often fails to take into account one of the clearest commands of Christ in the Scriptures: the command to make disciples (Matt 28:19)! For instance, Elmer L. Smith points out that the Amish understand Paul’s injunction to be separate from unbelief (2 Cor 6:17) in such a way as to invalidate Paul’s own commission to the Gentiles! Paul explicitly denounces this interpretation of his words in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world” (1 Cor 5:9–10).
08 September 2006
The first type of answer to the question of Christ and Culture is a configuration which presents mutual exclusivity between the demands of Jesus and the demands of the world. The ancient historical example for this type is Tertullian who is famed for denouncing all of Greco-Roman culture with broad rhetoric like, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the academy with the church?”
A modern expression of this type may be found in the Amish communities. These communities are perhaps most well-known for their rejection of technological advancement, but they refuse to embrace other aspects of the predominant civilization as well. With relation to the state, they will hold no public office. They will not join the military; nor will they accept any government aid such as social security. While some of these communities have allowed a craft trade for subsistence, others view even this meager artistic expression as an opportunity for pride. The height of their separation from culture is seen in the fact that the Amish refuse even to even speak the same language as their surrounding culture. Wikipedia provides documentation.
In this understanding, the believer is obligated to escape his culture and reconstitute a new culture based on radical obedience to Christ’s commands. Every part of civilization, from technological advancement to orderly governmental rule, from artistic expression to scientific discovery, is viewed with at best with suspicion, disdain, and indignation. The call of God to be separate from the world disallows any sustained contact with people outside the believing community.
We will get to some legitimate criticisms of this view in my next post. But I think that we can be too hasty in criticizing this approach and forget our pilgrim status in this age.
“Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6:17).
07 September 2006
06 September 2006
I am reading an essay by Packer on assurance in Puritan thought. What I found there surprised me. It also explained the wording of the Westminster Confession when it says that “infallible assurance” is possible. I am hesitant to say anyone’s assurance is really “infallible” because the warning passages of Scripture make grievous self-deception an ever-present possibility. But I am open to learning more from my Puritan teachers. This paragraph explains that the Westminster Confession was not saying that “infallible assurance” is commonplace; quite the contrary, the Westminster divines would have thought it comparatively rare among believers.
It is evident that “assurance” to the Puritan was something quite other than the “assurance” commonly given to the convert of five minutes’ standing in the enquiry room. (“You believe that John 1:12 is true? You have ‘received Him’? Then you are a son of God.”) The Puritans would not have called mere assent to such an inference, assurance at all. Professions of faith must be tested before they may be trusted, even by those who make them, and assurance, to the Puritan, was in any case more than a bare human inference; it was a God-given conviction of one’s standing in grace, stamped on the mind and heart by the Spirit…. The young convert’s position is really this: As he believes and obeys, he will know a measure of peace and joy, for real believing at once brings real comfort…; he may think and hope, and with some warrant, that he is a child of God, but he cannot say, in the unqualified sense of John’s first Epistle, that he knows his sonship until the Spirit sets this certainty home on his heart. Till the Spirit does so, in the Puritan sense, at any rate, he lacks assurance; which, said the Puritans, seems to be the case of most Christian people (“The Witness of the Spirit: The Puritan Teaching,” The Puritan Papers, vol. 1, p. 21).
04 September 2006
A few years ago I was speaking with a distant relative who is a pastor. I’m not sure exactly what brought us around to the topic of eternal security, but for some reason he asked me if I believed it. Now I have serious objections against those who hold to a doctrine of eternal security which is not part of a doctrine of perseverance, as last Wednesday’s post should make clear. Apparently these same objections forced this pastor to conclude that the doctrine of eternal security was only a license to sin and a reason for unbelievers to delay repentance. To prove his point against the eternal security position, the pastor pointed out that he could be certain that the pretribulation rapture position was correct because it does not give unbelievers a reason to delay repentance. In his mind, all the other rapture positions did give men a false sense of security, so the pretribulation position must be right. I thought that this was an interesting, if not altogether determinative, way of proving his point.
Although, I am not nearly clever enough to think of this on the spot, I realize now I might have turned this argument on its head. I could have made it an argument for the doctrines of grace. I should have told him that one sin that God hates intensely is the sin of pride, and one sin that man always embraces, given the opportunity, is pride. In the Arminian way of looking at things, believers have one good thing to their credit, one good thing they did without God’s effective help: they believed. “The Arminian system allows men to delay turning from their pride,” I should have said. But if God determines to save us, despite our hatred of him and ill-desert, if he makes us holy and brings us to glory, then we must repent of pride and praise him.
01 September 2006
Now that we have a modicum of understanding of Niebuhr’s theological grid, we may summarize the historical categories he developed to answer the Christ and Culture question. One of the interesting things about these categories is that Niebuhr admits that no historical characters are perfect matches for the types that he describes. He gives historical examples of each type, but readily admits that the examples that he gives do not fit precisely into his categorization.
Some have criticized this approach, and they make some valid points. But the approach has the advantages not only of admitting that history is messy business but also of remembering that there is some order to it all. Those who have undertaken advanced studies in any field know that nobody in academia dots their Is or crosses Ts the same way. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools of thought within each field. Though very few would match up with the majority position on every detail, there is still a majority position on every detail. And that’s where Niebuhr attempts to put the weight of his explanation. He tries to divide the most influential Christian theologians into five separate schools of thought with respect to this question.
With these caveats in mind, we may proceed to survey the five typical answers the historical church has given to the question, “How do the claims of Christ and the claims of culture relate to each other?” When he categorized these five answers the church has given Niebuhr was trying to place them on a basic continuum between obligations to Christ on one side and obligations to culture on the other: Christ against Culture (e.g. Tertullian, Anabaptists), Christ and Culture in Paradox (e.g. Luther, Kierkegaard), Christ transforms Culture (e.g. Calvin, Niebuhr), Christ above Culture (e.g. Aquinas, modern Catholics), and Christ of Culture (e.g. Peter Abelard, thorough-going modernists).