Book Review

"Christ & Culture Revisited" by D. A. Carson

Jason J. Stellman
D. A. Carson
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

In D. A. Carson's Christ & Culture Revisited, the author seeks to bring some biblical-theological insights to bear upon H. Richard Niebuhr's famous work, Christ and Culture. Carson begins with a reminder of Niebuhr's fivefold typology for discerning the relationship of Christ to culture (chapter 1), and then moves on to provide what he calls the "non-negotiables" of biblical theology such as creation, the fall, the call of Israel, the coming of Christ, and the eventual ushering in of the new heavens and new earth (chapter 2). Carson then turns his attention to a discussion of culture and postmodernism (chapter 3), secularism, democracy, freedom, and power (chapter 4), church and state (chapter 5), and then highlights some ongoing tensions within the Christ and culture discussion (chapter 6).

Concerning the first of Niebuhr's options, "Christ Against Culture," Carson sums up Niebuhr on this point thus: "For the Christian, political life must be shunned, and so also military service, philosophy, and the arts" (14). Included within this group would be certain Mennonites, the early Quakers, Leo Tolstoy, and, Carson adds, Stanley Hauerwas.

The second of Niebuhr's categories is dubbed, "The Christ of Culture." This position, Niebuhr argues, is adopted by those who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society and has been represented by the early Gnostics, Abelard, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and the various "culture-Protestants" who have dominated the religious scene since the eighteenth century.

The third of Niebuhr's options is "Christ Above Culture" and is, according to him, the majority position in the history of the church. Advocates of this "synthesist" position include Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and, most importantly, Thomas Aquinas. One of the greatest problems with this approach, argues Carson, is that it ignores just how culturally conditioned such syntheses really are. Just like the Jesus of Harnack and Herrmann looked suspiciously like a nineteenth-century German liberal, so the Jesus of the contemporary advocates of "Christ Over Culture" looks, well, just like us.

Niebuhr's fourth category, "Christ and Culture in Paradox," is assigned to "dualists" such as the "true Lutheran [who] finds life both tragic and joyful." The dualist motif is also found in Paul, Marcion, and Augustine.

Niebuhr's fifth option is dubbed, "Christ the Transformer of Culture," which-according to Carson's reading of Niebuhr-is not concerned so much with individual conversions but the conversion of culture itself. Interestingly, Niebuhr places both John Calvin and John Wesley within this trajectory. According to Carson, Wesley actually strengthens his conversionist heritage by espousing the doctrine of sinless perfection.

Carson is rather uncomfortable with Niebuhr's five typologies, arguing that "this emphasis on choosing from among the options does not square with the canonical function of Scripture" (206). Rather than identifying competing paradigms, all of which address the Christ/culture issue from the perspectives of the various biblical authors (an approach to Scripture that was common in the liberal circles of Niebuhr's day), Carson maintains that a more holistic model must be derived from the totality of the biblical witness. Further, this approach will include elements of all five of Niebuhr's options, depending on the circumstances (with the possible exception of "The Christ of Culture," for which Carson finds little biblical warrant).

In his discussion of the options vying for favor in the contemporary Christ/culture conversation, Carson interacts with those whose expectations he deems "minimalist" (such as Darryl Hart and Frederica Mathewes-Green). Citing Hart's insistence that Kuyperian attempts to integrate faith and scholarship are misguided, and Mathewes-Green's likening of culture to the weather (we live in it and can even predict it with some accuracy, but changing it is not really an option), Carson argues that if all these authors were doing were offering a warning against utopianism, then all would be well. But such pessimism "fail[s] to see the temporally good things we can do to improve and even transform social structures" (217-18, emphasis original). Listing examples such as abolishing slavery, curing disease, and reducing sex traffic, Carson maintains that "in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city…is part of our responsibility as God's redeemed people in this time of tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet.'"

While I would concur that "it is unwise to speak of 'redeeming culture'" (217), I find Carson's antidote to minimalism too, well, maximalist. The assumption seems to be that the "we" who desire to accomplish such obviously welcome goals as ending slavery and curing disease must be "we Christians." What Carson overlooks is the fact that history is filled with examples of sinners who disliked cancer, as well as with saints who defended slavery. In other words, one does not need to affirm Chalcedonian Christology in order to work toward the curing of disease, nor have all who affirmed that Christology wanted slavery to end. This idea-that believers have a monopoly on morality, that cultural clean-up is a kingdom responsibility, and that Scripture furnishes the saints with a clear idea of what godly society would look like-seems to ignore both the fact that the Bible's authority is limited to those loci it actually addresses clearly and that all people share the imago Dei, as well a common basis for morality provided by the works of God's law written on our hearts. In a word, pagans are often more horizontally good and the pious horizontally bad than we usually care to admit.

Carson concludes that the careful student of Scripture must view with suspicion any attempt to canonize a particular Christ/culture paradigm. If our thinking is governed by "the great turning points of redemptive history," then "various ways of thinking about the relationship between Christ and culture may prove heuristically helpful but will not assume canonical force." The result will be our ability "to be as flexible in this regard as are the New Testament documents, without undermining such absolutes as 'Jesus is Lord!'" (226).

I wholeheartedly applaud Carson's attempt to view the relationship of Christ to culture within the context of a biblical-theological matrix, and his discussion of culture and postmodernism is very helpful. Still, I wish that, when all was said and done, he had landed upon more terra firma rather than leaving the reader with his feet planted in midair.

Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology