Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

13 May 2003

Another classic book from 1951

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row) is one that I’ve read several times since first encountering it as an undergraduate. The author is rather less famous than his brother Reinhold, probably the premier American protestant theologian and public philosopher of the middle 20th century. Tellingly, the Niebuhr family was nurtured spiritually in the German Evangelical Synod, which has its origins in the Prussian union church of 1817, when the Prussian king forcibly united his Reformed (Calvinist) and Evangelical (i.e., Lutheran) subjects into a single communion. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Reinhold’s writings tend to read in a Lutheran way, while Richard seems to draw more on the Calvinist side of his family’s heritage.

Richard’s five categories have become familiar – indeed almost cliché – by now. Yet even those disagreeing with his approach tend to use them: (1) Christ against culture; (2) Christ of culture; (3) Christ above culture; (4) Christ and culture in paradox; and (5) Christ transforming culture.

Virtually everyone wants to be in this last transformationist camp. Yet in recent years I’ve become aware of the fact that a desire to transform the culture is hardly sufficient, unless one is clear what the basis is for such transformative activity. Transformation can easily describe the imposition of a foreign, extraneous design onto human culture and society. Since transformationists are many and various, each has his own vision of where culture ought to be moving and what it ought to look like when it gets there. Not only are these visions obviously incompatible; many are also impracticable and utopian. The liberation theologian and the follower of the Christian Coalition both seek to transform culture, but each is dragging the world in a different direction.

This has prompted me to wonder whether it might not be better to speak of Christ restoring culture. Such restorative activity would be undertaken on the understanding that there are norms for everything in God’s world and that we must follow these. If we seek to transform culture without a sufficient grounding in God’s word and world, then we are likely to fall prey to the same sorts of distortions as the followers of the ideologies.

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