Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 2)

In chapter 2 of Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson explores the impact of a more developed biblical theology on the work of H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr tried to write to a universal Christian audience, so he minimized the amount of biblical theology that went into his book. He tried just to focus on Christ and culture.

Obviously, there was some merit to Niebuhr’s attempt. His book has been accepted across a spectrum of traditions because the tent of what he considers “Christian” is wide. (Carson is not so generous.) However, by broadening his definition of “Christ” so much, Niebuhr unnecessarily (in Carson’s mind) expands the number of viable ways in which Christians can interact with culture.

For instance, the second model in Niebuhr’s paradigm is the “Christ of culture.” This category can generally be applied to the old liberals in America. They are the folks whose primary allegiance is to the culture and who trumpet the teachings of Jesus that parallel the values of the culture. Typically, they downplay “seams” in history—i.e. the fall, the resurrection, and the return of Christ. Carson wonders whether we can legitimately consider this type of “Christianity” genuinely Christian. He has a point.

Further, Carson notes that the historical examples that Niebuhr offers as following his categories don’t consistently follow his categories. This is a serious weakness of Niebuhr’s book. Almost everyone that I have seen interact with Niebuhr’s categories have picked and chosen elements from each. Carson rightly says that this is evidence that the categories are artificial and dependant upon circumstances.

Having shown the deficiencies in Niebuhr’s biblical theology, Carson outlines what the Bible says about God, man, creation, redemption, etc. The narrative is classic Carson—the typical stuff coming out of TEDS and prevalent in American evangelical churches. Carson says that it is from this starting point that we should investigate the relationship between (the real) Christ and culture.

Finally, Carson offers a series of parting shots at Niebuhr. First, he emphasizes that a well-developed biblical theology should influence our thinking about Christ and culture all of the time. Second, he points out that bifurcating ways in which Christ relates to culture is methodologically flawed (in the same way that bifurcating models of the atonement is errant). Instead, we should view Niebuhr’s models holistically and ask, “When is Christ against culture? When is Christ above culture? When are they in paradox?” Third, Carson notes that Christ and culture are not always mutually exclusive (I think this is a criticism of Niebuhr’s definition of “culture,” to which Carson will return in the future). Finally, Christ’s relationship to culture often depends upon historical circumstances.

Carson’s take on Christ and culture is very different than Niebuhr’s. Niebuhr sought to be more inclusive, which limited the extent to which he could talk about the relationship between Christ and culture. It may have even led him down paths that shouldn’t have been trodden. Carson sticks to what he believes and says, “Who cares about the liberals? How does the evangelical Christ relate to culture?” On the one hand, Carson’s model will be more helpful to me because he and I are on the same page on most doctrines. On the other hand, I disagree with how narrow he has defined Christianity. I would almost have preferred him to title this book The American Evangelical Christ and Culture.

I agree with Carson’s view of the “seams” in history, but I am not willing to say that everyone who deviates from Carson’s narrative is not a Christian. I think you can believe in sin without interpreting the fall like Carson does. I think belief in the resurrection and Trinity are non-negotiables, but I am not sure about substitutionary atonement. I think to be a Christian someone must believe that Jesus died for sins (whatever that might mean) and that He rose bodily from the dead. Christians also believe in the Trinity and that “faith” involves a conscious decision to follow/live like Christ. Obviously there is more to being a Christian that just that, but if we are talking sine qua non, that’s what I think it is.

In short, I think Carson’s net is too narrow, but since I’m in his net I’ll read what he has to say.

1 comment:

Creitz said...

I haven't read Carson's work and it would be hard for me to decide which would be the greater hero to me...Carson or Niebuhr? Two great men with a great understanding of God's Word and the culture around us. I've been blogging a lot about Christ, culture, creation, and the Church these days so maybe I will check out Carson's book. Thanks for the review.