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Christ and Culture

David Hall

15 January 2010


Christ and Culture

This paper considers the relationship between the believer and the culture within which the

believer lives. The starting point is the classic work by Richard Niebuhr, “Christ and

Culture”. Niebuhr describes five categories which describe possible relationships between

the believer and culture. These are by no means comprehensive but provide a framework

for considering this interaction. Only three of the five categories are considered. The two

omitted are the more extreme forms of relationship. The three considered are more

moderate. Historical examples reflect the timeless nature of this question and

demonstrate how different believers have considered the nature of the relationship. In the

final analysis the relationship between the believer and culture is complex and not easily

reduced to simple categories. The believer acts generally in the conversionism

relationship, representing the best fit Biblical model. There are, however, times when the

believer will act more in line with either the synthesis or dualism category.


Of the five possible ways, defined by Niebuhr,1 in which Christians can relate to the
surrounding culture, there are three of them which attempt to hold the two in tension.2
These views seek to express Christ and Culture as “both and” rather than “either or”.3
These are described by Niebuhr4 as Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox
and Christ the Transformer of Culture. This paper seeks to consider each of these three in
an historical context, compare and contrast them and highlight their strengths and
weaknesses. These three are sometimes described as “the church of the centre” or
“Christians of the centre”.5 The historical examples for each are respectively; Clement of
Alexandria, Martin Luther and Augustine.

At the outset it is important to provide a simple definition for each of the three ways. Here
again Niebuhr is helpful. He uses three terms to summarise each of these three positions.
He refers to those who hold these views respectively as synthesists,6 dualists7 and

Clement of Alexandria represents the synthesist’s view. This view affirms both Christ and
culture. The synthesist recognises, however, that there is a gap between Christ and
culture. The real demands of Christian living are to be lived out in the context of culture.
Perhaps the most helpful passage depicting this perspective is Romans 13:1-7. Here Paul
speaks of the link between the believer, authorities and God. It is God who has instituted

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (Harper and Row, New York, 1956)
David O’Brien, Formative Christian Theology Lecture Notes: Lesson 11, (Trinity College Melbourne, 2007)
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 120
Ibid., pp. vii-viii
Ibid., pp. 116-120
Ibid., p. 120
Ibid., p. 149
Ibid., p. 190
these authorities,9 the believer is to be subject to these authorities as in the sense of as to
the Lord’s servant.

Clement’s view can be seen in his writings. In the pamphlet “Who is the Rich Man that
shall be Saved”,10 Clement speaks of the foolishness of those who flatter the rich. He
expresses two faults with those who flatter; they are both “godless and treacherous”.11
The godless element is that insufficient praise is given to God who according to Clement
“is alone perfect and good”.12 Riches are to be correctly seen as coming from God.
Clement is also expressive of the state of all men who are “wallowing in an execrable and
abominable life, and … liable on this account to the judgement of God”.13 The treachery is
that the flatterers are turning the minds of the rich from salvation and directing attention to
wealth in itself. This is the very opposite of what Clement sees as the Christian view.
Clements encourages the rich to see that salvation, real wealth, is found in Christ alone
and to have a clear view of the eternal value of the gospel when compared with the
fleeting value of wealth.14 Clement considers, in depth, the New Testament passage
dealing with the man who had many possessions who came to Jesus seeking to find
eternal life.15 The command by Jesus to “…sell what you own, and give the money to the
poor…”,16 is expressed by Clement not as in injunction to rid himself of his possessions,
but to rid himself of his “notions”, “excitement” and “anxieties” about wealth.17

In Romans 13:4 speaks of authority as “God’s servant”
Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved, published in A Roberts and J Donaldson
(ed.), The Anti-Nicene Fathers Volume 2 (Book for the Ages:Ages Software, Albany Oregon, USA, Version
2.0 1997) pp. 1191-1218. This text of Clement is translated by Rev. William Wilson, M.A.
Ibid., p. 1191
Ibid., p. 1191
Ibid., p. 1191
Ibid., p. 1192, Clement expresses this as the need “to compare things small and perishing with things
great and immortal ”
Mark 10:17-31
Mark 10:21
Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved, p. 1197
Clement in his work “The Instructor”,18 presents Jesus as a sensitive and gentle teacher.
The Christian is represented as being involved in living in the world engaged in everyday
life. Hence there are sections dealing with such ordinary life activities as sleep, the
wearing of shoes and the wearing of clothes.19 Clement also expresses the relationship of
culture to God in the topics he discusses in his work “The Miscellanies.20 There is
however, a clear note that Jesus is above culture. Clement speaks against non Christian
philosophies and “The Sophists”.21

For Clement the Christian is first and foremost a citizen of heaven. But as a citizen of
heaven he is engaged with God’s current creation (culture) in a comfortable manner. The
Christian engages fully within his culture, but always subject to the Lordship of Christ. It is
worth noting that Clement’s writings were in a time when “the church was still outlawed”.22

The dualists attempt to hold together Christ and culture but seek to clearly differentiate
between commitment to Christ and social responsibility within the culture.23 Martin Luther
was one who sought to maintain the tension between Christ and culture. This position is
characterised by balancing the conflict rather than by establishing harmony as in the
synthesists position. This conflict can be primarily seen as between God and man.24 This
sees the Christian’s life in two distinct yet conflicting spheres; human culture and God’s
kingdom. This tension is not a tension between Christians and non Christians but between
man and God.25

Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, published in A Roberts and J Donaldson (ed.), The Anti-Nicene
Fathers Volume 2 (Book for the Ages:Ages Software, Albany Oregon, USA, Version 2.0 1997) pp. 400-583.
This text of Clement is translated by Rev. William Wilson, M.A.
Ibid., pp. 498, 517, 510
Clement of Alexandria, The Miscellanies, published in A Roberts and J Donaldson (ed.), The Anti-Nicene
Fathers Volume 2 (Book for the Ages:Ages Software, Albany Oregon, USA, Version 2.0 1997) pp. 584-1151.
This text of Clement is translated by Rev. William Wilson, M.A. Some of these topics include “Human Arts as
well as Divine Knowledge Proceed from God”, “Philosophy the Handmaid of Theology”, “The Benefit of
Culture” and “The Eclectic Philosophy Paves the Way for Divine Virtue”
Ibid., pp. 593-594
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 128
Ibid., p. 149
Ibid., p. 150. Niebuhr describes this conflict in these words. “The conflict is between God and man, or
better – since the dualist is an existential thinker – between God and us; the issue lies between the
righteousness of God and the righteousness of self”
Ibid., p. 150
Martin Luther typifies the dualist who has encountered the focus of the tension between
God and man, reconciliation and forgiveness. Prior to his conversion Luther had a real
dread of God.26 His conversion gave him insight into the grace of God in Christ.27 This
resulted in an appreciation of the vast difference between being a member of the kingdom
and not being a member. Hence this strong sense of difference is translated to kingdom
and culture.

Luther exhibits some of his ideas in his work “Secular Work: To what extent it should be
obeyed”.28 Luther points clearly to the fact that secular rulers do not have the right to
demand that their subjects believe whatever they prescribe.29 Luther expresses this
opposition to secular authority in that he “… must resist them at least with words.”30 Luther
divides all men into two classes, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.31 In
regards to Christians he points out that in fact there is no need of “secular sword or law”.32
Those who are not part of the kingdom thus have need of law and God has provided the
human social structures and authorities.33

Luther as an exemplar of dualists sees that the whole of human endeavour is designed to
supplant God by placing man as god.34 The dualist thus stands condemning the world but
freely offering salvation to the world and living in this world as a kingdom citizen. The call
to obey authorities and to participate in culture is not because of the inherent godliness of
these but because they contain in essence the primitive form of law derived imperfectly

James Atkinson, The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation, (The Paternoster Press, Exeter, Devon,
1968) p. 18
Ibid., p. 20
The Works of Martin Luther Volume 3 (Book for the Ages:Ages Software, Albany Oregon, USA, Version
2.0 1997) pp. 181-215.
Ibid., p. 182. Luther argues, “They actually think they have the power to do and command their subjects to
do, whatever they please. And the subjects are led astray and believe they are bound to obey them in
everything. It has gone so far that the rulers have ordered the people to put away books, and to believe and
keep what they prescribe.”
Ibid., p. 183
Ibid., p. 183
Ibid., p. 185
Ibid., p. 187
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 155 “The dualist likes to point out that the will to live as gods,
hence without God, appears in man’s noblest endeavours, that is, those that are noblest according to human
from God’s perfect law. The Christian, as a participating member of the kingdom of God,
will thus meet the valid requirements of society and culture. Where, however, authorities
take upon themselves to establish laws that contradict God’s laws and oppose his children
the Christian is called to obey God rather than the social demands.35

The tension between day to day life in the world and being a follower of Jesus touches
every area of human endeavour. Luther himself addressed many such areas in his

The third category to be considered is that Christ is the transformer of culture. This is the
so called conversionists’ position. Niebuhr considers that this position represents those
who “evidently belong to the great central tradition of the church.”37 Although having many
beliefs in common with the dualist the conversionist is more affirming of culture. Creation
and the Incarnation are seen as God’s desire to participate with man despite man’s
sinfulness signalling a desire to withdraw from God. History itself, though a sad tale of
man’s sinfulness expressed towards God and fellow man, has an underlying redemptive
theme demonstrating God’s loving sovereign work through every age. The conversionist
sees clearly that eternal life begins not with the second coming but with conversion. The
claim by Jesus that he has come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly”,38 is not
just a reference to life after death but includes life here on earth to some extent. Similarly
though culture always reflects at its heart sinful rebellion against God it too is capable of
being renewed. So, just as the child of God exhibits an internal battle between the desire
to do good and the evil that is done,39 so also where culture has been renewed by the
impact of the gospel it too can reflect both its inherent sinfulness as well as reflecting
imperfectly the perfect law of the Lord. This apparent tension is not the tension of the
dualist which is between the kingdom of Christ and culture but is the tension between that
which has been renewed by the Gospel and that which remains degenerate.

Acts 4:19-20. Implied in Peter and James answer is that it is right to obey God rather than the rulers.
The titles of some of Luther’s works reflect this consideration of the culture, for example “For all Christians,
warning them against Insurrection and Rebel”, “On Trading and Usury”, “The Right and Power”, “Keeping
Children in School”, The Works of Martin Luther Volume 3 (Book for the Ages:Ages Software, Albany
Oregon, USA, Version 2.0 1997)
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 190
John 10:10b
Romans 7:15-25
It is Augustine who provides us with an example of the conversionist. His writings and his
attempts to influence the society of his day reflect this position. The development of the
Roman church as both spiritual and secular force is seen in the lives of both the emperor
Constantine and Augustine. There is an element of the dualist in Augustine.40 But in his
work and writings he reflects Jesus as the transformer of culture.41

Augustine writes of both spiritual and social matters in his work “The City of God”.42 One
of the key points that Augustine establishes is that the Christians are not able to attain
their proper destiny in life without reference to life in their culture.43 Augustine speaks of
two cities, the heavenly city and the earthly city.44 However these are not separate but
intersecting. The heavenly city partly “sojourns on earth lives by faith”.45 The function of
the city is not to be separate or to be in synthesis but is to call “citizens out of all nations.”46
This is the primary role of the conversionist. To call individuals to rebirth in Christ and thus
social structures and forms can in a sense be renewed, thereby achieving the intersection
of Augustine’s two cities.

Augustine is clear that the whole world is under the law of God’s providence.47 He also
sees the extent and glory of the Roman Empire as of value for both citizens of God’s
kingdom and this world’s kingdom. Augustine speaks of the virtue of the person without
God and the person with God. He points out that human virtue is not to be compared with
the virtues of the saints.48 This again reflects that within society one and the same action
– that of doing good, is of eternal value only as a result of the converting work of Christ in
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 207
Ibid., p. 208
From the translation in The Nicene and Post-Nicene First Series Volume 2 (Book for the Ages:Ages
Software, Albany Oregon, USA, Version 2.0 1997) pp. 20-1077
Ibid., p. 855. “For how could the city of God (concerning which we are already writing no less than the
nineteenth book of this work) either take a beginning or be developed, or attain its proper destiny, if the life of
the saints were not a social life?”
Ibid., p. 874.
Ibid., p. 874.
Ibid., p. 874
Ibid., p. 214
Ibid., p. 232. “But however much that virtue [human virtue] may be praised and cried up, which without true
piety is the slave of human glory, it is not at all to be compared even to the feeble beginnings of the virtue of
the saints, whose hope is placed in the grace and mercy of the true God.”
the life of the one who acts. Augustine also sees the family as the “beginning or element
of the city”.49

Augustine describes in considerable details the wonders and achievements of the human
mind in its unregenerate state.50 To this, however, he adds the important distinction that
those who are part of his kingdom will be perfected in ways almost indescribable.51
Augustine saw this conversion of culture not as being realised fully until heaven. Just as
the Christian is converted in this life but waits for the coming of Jesus to be fully restored
so the whole creation is incapable of complete conversion until its complete

The strength of the synthesists position is that it affirms both God the creator and God the
saviour. Although there is a theoretical recognition that the creation is sinful and fallen,
this truth, in practice, can sometimes be overlooked and the synthesist is in danger of
assigning to culture a degree of perfection that is injurious to faith.53 The synthesists’
position is appealing in that it makes integration between Christ and culture harmonious.
The danger is that of being so joined with culture that following Christ is reduced to a
cultural religion, the desire for the perfection of heaven can be displaced by the desire for
perfection on earth. The distinction between the righteousness of Christ and the fallen
nature of creation is lost.54 The desire of the synthesist for extensive cooperation between
Christians and non-Christians in the sciences, arts, business, government and
development of this world has seen many advances. The work of many Christian social
activists, such as William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in England are shining
examples of the synthesis of Christ and culture. The difficulty is preventing the culture
from dictating to the Christian. Jesus’ parable of the sower 55 and Paul’s comment on
Demas 56 are two examples of the dangers inherent in synthesis.

The Nicene and Post-Nicene First Series Volume 2 p. 873
Ibid., pp. 1057-1063
Ibid., pp. 1062-1063
Revelation 21:1
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 143
2 Corinthians 6:14-18 warns of the danger of thinking that Christ and Culture exist in harmony. In
particular the strong expression “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever” v15b is a
challenge for the synthesist to maintain.
Matthew 13:3-23

At a theoretical level the synthesist can be seen as seeking to make absolute what is really
relative. The harmony between what is of the kingdom and what is of the culture is partial
only.57 For example it is possible to establish a governmental and legal system based
upon kingdom precepts but the difference between the fallen creation and God’s perfection
prevent this from attaining the perfection of the nature of God. The Old Testament is an
extensive example of how despite being given God’s national and personal laws, the
sinfulness of humanity corrupted the kingdom. 58

A major flaw inherent in the synthesist’s position is that of ignoring the “radical evil present
in all human work”.59

This leads directly to consider the merits of the dualist’s position. The strength of the
dualist’s position lies in its focus upon the central Biblical truth of God reconciling men to
himself through the incarnation, crucifiction, resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. The
dualist is able to maintain a clear perspective of the fallen sinful world and the
righteousness of God. History itself demonstrates that generally, since the coming of
Jesus, Christianity has been in conflict with culture. The periods of relative peace and
harmony between Christ and culture are usually only surface deep. This can be
demonstrated by a close examination of Christendom. On the surface, this represented a
marrying of Christ and culture but the continual conflict within groups and factions typified
by the political machinations of those seeking power within the “Church” and exemplified
by the 16th century reformation demonstrate the reality of conflict.

The dualist’s understanding of the sinfulness of human beings closely aligns with the
Biblical representation that there is no one who is good.60 This leads inevitably to the
conclusion then that all human culture is corrupt, not just those involving unbelievers but

2 Timothy 4:10
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 145
Isaiah 1:2-4
Ibid., p. 148
Romans 3:10-18. Jesus himself commented on the untrustworthiness of all men in John 2:24
also believers.61 This consistent view with the Bible is one of the strengths of this position.
The dualist thus stands with God against man in agreeing with God’s condemnation of
man and culture but also stands as man condemned by God and part of culture under the
condemnation of God. This paradox is resolved in Christ.62

The dualist view also reflects clearer the dynamic nature of the relationship between God
and man, or Christ and culture. The believer is in the midst of a continual struggle in life,
both internally 63 and externally.64 The dualist’s position also continually focuses attention
on the saving work of Christ.

The disadvantage of dualism can be seen, in some instances, in its detachment from
society and the laws, structures and norms of society.65 Perhaps this can be seen in
groups who though living in society are reluctant to support the culture. This in itself
makes the task of evangelism more difficult. There can be a tendency to move to the
Christ against culture position thereby ignoring Jesus’ prayer for participation in this

Another possible disadvantage is a tendency towards cultural conservatism. 67 Both Paul

and Luther have been criticised for their lack of social activity towards the evils within the
cultures of their day. Paul is criticised for not speaking and acting against slavery while
Luther maintained social stratification rather than seeking social equality. This can result
in inactivity towards social evils.

The conversionists’ strength is that they seek to address the need for individual and social
renewal through conversion to Christ. The resist the urge either to become too much in
harmony with culture, the synthesist’s tendency, or to be conservative towards the need

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 153. See also p. 154, “All human action, all culture, is infected
with godlessness, which is the essence of sin.”
Galatians 1:4
Romans 7:23-24
Matthew 10:34-39
Ibid., p. 187.
John 17:15-16
Ibid., p.187.
for cultural change, the dualist’s tendency. Paul’s statement in Colossians 68 about Jesus
presents him as the creator and also the one for whom all things were created. This
passage sees Jesus both of the head of all social powers and structures as well as the

The conversionist also seeks to keep in balance the need for present action in this world
as well as hope for the new heaven. The gospel of John reflects the wonder of the fact
that Jesus, the Son of God, took on humanity and lived on earth.69 John reminds us of the
action of God in offering salvation to everyone.70

One of the shortcomings of Augustine’s work is that despite a heavy emphasis on faith in
Christ there is a tendency for the Christian life to be seen in practice as obedience to the
church’s teachings.71 Another fault can be seen in the work of Calvin. He as a
conversionist is sometimes seen as a separatist.72 A danger too reflected in Wesley’s
work is that of a tendency towards the belief the possibility of attaining perfection in this
world. This is extending the concept of conversion beyond its Biblical boundaries. This
leads in turn to the danger of conversionist into universalism. The truth that Christ
converts men can be stretched to the point where Christ is seen as ultimately converting
all people and all culture. Such a belief moves outside of the Biblical teaching on the
reality of those who believe and those who don’t believe.73

Throughout history this tension for every Christian has been resolved in a variety of ways.
This is perhaps because throughout the Bible there are passages which reflect different
perspectives of a Christian’s interaction with culture. In assessing the three views
discussed here the more extreme views of Christ against culture and Christ of culture have
been excluded. Which of the three views, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in
paradox and Christ the transformer of culture best represents the Biblical view is not easy
to determine.

Colossians 1:16-18
John 1:14
John 3:16
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 217.
Ibid., p. 218
The Bible continually refers to those who reject Christ and those who believe. For example John 1:11-13,
Matthew 7:13-14

The difficulty appears that these three categories are by definition separate and completely
independent. Is there perhaps a time for a Christian to sometimes be a synthesist,
sometimes a dualist and sometimes a conversionist? It does appear that the believer can
oscillate between these three categories. However, given the thrust of the whole of the
Bible as God seeking man then the view that provides the best Biblical balance appear to
be the conversionist perspective. Here there is a clear picture of the righteousness of God
and the sinfulness and corruption of humans and human culture. This is balanced with the
work of God providing a way for fallen creatures to be renewed through faith in Christ and
engaging in a very affirming way with all of creation.

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